If you took the under on Jose Mourinho making it until the midway point of the season, you may now collect your winnings. Official word came from Manchester United on Tuesday, announcing the departure of the polarizing Portuguese manager. United ownership has intimated that the next manager appointed will be a caretaker to the end of the current season. Speculation on Mourinho’s replacement has cited names from all ranks of the footballing world. I am not into speculation of that kind. The club has stated, however, that the appointment of their next manager should take place within the next 48 hours, or so, and he will be someone steeped in the tradition of Man United success.
From an analysis perspective, there are two factors that have noteworthy fantasy implications. Are the Man United clean sheets about to return? If there was one thing that we believed in in the past, it was that Jose Mourinho’s teams were competent in defense. This season, his reliability took a sharp dive. So defense is the first place managers should look once the caretaker manager has been announced.
This creates an opportunity for an Antonio Valencia revival, after finishing as a top-five defender in the 2017-18 season. His return would put a squeeze on the full backs that have been the usual starters under Mourinho’s tutelage, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw. And, at center back, all managers will be looking for is a reliable tandem that can lock down opposing attacks. Outside of Chris Smalling’s £5.6m cost, the prices among the rest of the center back contingent have been suppressed to levels that turn into real bargains, if they can turn around their defensive fortunes. Eric Bailly (£5.0m) and Victor Lindelof (£4.8m) come to mind.
Secondly, managers seek an answer to what Manchester United truly have in attack. There are three big questions whose answers will point managers towards the proper routes to invest: How tightly was Mourinho pulling back on the reins? Is this squad, legitimately, a collective group of flawed, overlapping, assets? And, more actionably, what do United have in midfield? There is still the lingering notion of Alexis Sanchez. We have seen spurts from Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba for small streaks this season. Recently, Jesse Lingard has shown to be a suitable fantasy producer. On the periphery, Juan Mata has shown flashes of his fantasy capabilities.
Also, from a non-fantasy viewpoint, what happened to Fred? He was supposed to be the key to unlocking this Manchester attack, providing defensive coverage alongside Nemanja Matic. The caretaker will help sort out much of this, choosing new favorite formations and defensive tactics, and all fantasy managers will be anxiously waiting to see which untapped fantasy assets emerge for fantasy exploits, be it in attack, or defense, or quite possibly both.
While the current intelligence surrounding Manchester United suggests that managers wait on making any incoming transfers, the upcoming game-week provides plenty of places to dig up some fantasy points. And, as Newton outlined in his laws of motion, there exist a few matches worth disinvesting, should you need a place to spend that free transfer. Here is Pass or Shoot, for week eighteen:
Two of Burnley’s last three opponents, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, rolled out rotated squads. Both came away with narrow victories. Now the onus has fallen on Unai Emery. Fortunately for fantasy managers, Emery has very few places left to turn for reinforcements. The Arsenal attack sits in the top-three for goals scored, which offers optimism for those rostering Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. While Spurs were only able to nick one goal from the Clarets, the match stats would suggest that there were plenty more opportunities to run up the tally.
The remaining area of the pitch offers cautious optimism for the rest of the Gunners’ players. Whether he would admit it or not, Emery has a midfield problem. The recent Mesut Ozil saga, the Aaron Ramsey standoff, and the sporadic minutes for Henrikh Mkhitaryan have pushed much of the production onto the fullbacks and strikers. Lucas Torreira is a fine fifth-midfielder option, but his recent attacking returns should be regarded as an anomaly. A return to the starting lineup for Mesut Ozil at the Emirates Stadium will be the key cog for an Arsenal side in need of a creative spark.
For the aforementioned defenders, if there was ever a time where turning up for a clean sheet paid off, this would be it. Burnley are one of six teams to average less than one goal per game. That being said, Southampton were one of those sides, and we saw how Arsenal mishandled that chance, albeit on the road. And, the defense is in complete shambles after a revolving door of injured personnel. But, the necessity of the fullbacks to get forward is worthy of investment. Hector Bellerin looks to be out for multiple weeks, which should provide some job security to Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac (if he returns from a mild injury that kept him out of last week’s team). Otherwise, the uncertainty around the defensive resolve renders the remaining defenders unusable.
Given that fact, this match-up sets the table for managers to deploy some differential Burnley assets. The inability for Arsenal to keep the ball out of the net leads to substantial upside for the Burnley strikers: Chris Wood, Ashley Barnes, and Sam Vokes. Chris Wood is my favorite of the bunch, being the only 10-goal scorer of the group last season. He offers technical ability that the other two just do not have. There’s also potential for assists. Of the lot, the only two play-makers worth taking a shot on are Robbie Brady and Johann Berg Gudmundsson, provided the latter is given a clean bill of health.
Another prosperous match-up is Hammers versus Hornets. We know that Watford cannot defend, especially on the road. Chicharito looks to be an important presence in the West Ham attack, sans Marko Arnautovic. The Lucas Perez injury should see Chicharito maintain his spot for the weekend match even if Andy Carroll should return to the fold. Carroll has repeatedly shown the talent to exploit the Watford defense. There is plenty of risk involved given his injury history, but this match-up should offer plenty of goal scoring opportunities both directly and aerially.
Furthermore, in recent weeks, all green arrows point to Felipe Anderson. Over the past four weeks, Anderson has tallied 30 fantasy points. He has contributed across all facets of the game: two goals, two assists, and four bonus points. Everything about the West Ham attack has run through him and should continue to do so. And, do not forget about his resurgent, lesser, companion Robert Snodgrass, should you be unable to find the necessary cash for Anderson. This game also provides some optimism that West Ham have sorted out some of their defensive woes.
For Watford, the outlook is nearly as good as for their opponents. The difficulty with Watford is pinning down who is going to be curating the fantasy points week-to-week. The most troubling deficiency of this Hornets squad is the striker position. Troy Deeney continues to start because he scored an outrageous goal to earn Watford’s promotion in the 2014-15 season. Andre Gray is the exact same enigmatic player he was at a restrictive Burnley side. All the while, fantasy managers still yearn to see what the prospects for budget-friendly forward Isaac Success are.
Watford’s key assets are in the midfield. If the West Ham defense is what they have been for season after season, the points are going to come from the attacking minds in the middle of the park. If we look at Fantasy Football Fix’s stat-lines from the last five games, we see Ricardo Pereyra with an astounding expected goal (xG) total of 2.0 but nothing to show for it. Over that time he is also the joint leader in shots on target for Watford.
Playing the role of provider, Gerard Deulofeu is the key man. In the ten games following his injury to start the season, he has averaged 3.5 fantasy points per game. His inability to remain on the pitch has been an issue. He has started only seven of ten games, and only one of his seven starts saw him play 90 minutes. The best all-around producer recently has been Abdoulaye Doucoure. If you combine shots on target and attempted assists, Doucoure leads all midfielders in the combined total. My ranks for the upcoming week would be Doucoure, then Pereyra, then Deulofeu.
The Bournemouth attack has now returned to full fitness, and this game at the Vitality Stadium is a chance for them to hit the reset button on their potent attack. The attack can only, likely, sustain three key players. Callum Wilson, Joshua King, and Ryan Fraser are the key attackers with roles most likely to tally fantasy points. The Brighton defense has not kept a clean sheet since week 10. This is a match-up that should allow the Cherries to regain the form that gained them inclusion in a multitude of fantasy teams.
If there is one weakness for Brighton’s opponent, the Bournemouth defense will allow the Seagulls’ attack the chance to keep up. Glenn Murray has been a steady contributor among the budget forwards this season. For those Aleksandar Mitrovic owners spooked by recent Fulham performances, Murray provides a great one-week swap in Week 18.
For an even greater punt, Solly March has taken over as the talismanic figure in midfield. He netted his first goal of the season last week, and has five assists to go with that. Also, fantasy managers continue to hope that Pascal Groß, in what should be his fifth start since his injury return, will regain to his form from last season.
Aside from Eden Hazard, Chelsea have not shown the expected goal scoring acumen fantasy managers have anticipated. The largest issue is the widespread contribution, combined with the continual rotation of players in the midfield. There is no trust for any other players in the attack. Pedro has been the next-best offensive performer, but you would hardly call his place in the squad nailed-on. If Hazard fails to turn up, Chelsea’s best fantasy prospects then shift to their defenders, not any of the other attackers, unfortunately.
Leicester have the defensive resume to offer a dampened outlook for Chelsea in this match. They have kept five clean sheets to this point in the season. The key cog in the defense, Harry Maguire, returned from injury last week. If Ben Chilwell is given a positive health report this week, this defense has the ability to limit the damage Chelsea is able to do. And, given the recent defensive performance, or lack thereof, you could imagine that conceding only once could offer them enough of a chance to steal a point on the road.
Everton v. Tottenham
This match gives me a lot of pause from a fantasy perspective. In their last six matches, Everton have managed to score only five goals. With what we have seen against the other big-six clubs, the expectation is that Everton will play in extra defensive mode. The counterattack will be the main source of Everton’s offensive strategy, a strategy they have not yet proven in their ultra-defensive setup.
That same strategy was deployed against Tottenham by Burnley last week, and it was nearly successful. It is worth noting that the squad starting last week’s game for Tottenham was largely rotated. Even if the side returns to full strength, there are reservations as to whether this Spurs attack can be creative enough to score against a squad set up to defend at all costs. If Everton do not decide to open up the game, then a drab 1-1 or nil-nil affair is not out of the question. And either would greatly dampen the fantasy outlooks of many fantasy teams.
This week marks the official start of the festive period. Rotation is sure to derail our plans for the upcoming handful of game weeks. Do not be afraid to take that -4 point hit to cover your bets in order to make gains over the holiday fixtures. Making the extra transfer to manipulate money to exploit match-ups and react to rotation can be worth the negative points. I will advocate for making the aggressive play in this period of condensed fixtures.
Do you agree with these picks and pans? Are there any other match-ups you see that offer large amounts of upside? What about those that give you pause? How are you handling Manchester United assets in wake of today’s news? Let us know in the comments below!