Week 2 in the Premier League brought us our first marquee match-up of the season. On Saturday, Tottenham traveled to champions Manchester City. You could even say that Sunday and Monday featured, if not traditional marquee match-ups, what could prove to be fascinating match-ups between high-flying “best of the rest” candidates in Leicester City and Wolves facing members of the big six who are predicted to be vulnerable this season in Chelsea and Manchester United. After an opening weekend where we were Manchester United facing Chelsea provided big brands but no real view into the title race, Week 2 provided a first real insight into how it might play out at the top.
The big one didn’t disappoint. Manchester City vs Spurs was a fantastic match by just about any measure. It was all action. It had goals. It had the already inevitable VAR controversy. In the end, it gave us our first real surprise result of the season and enough Tweets about VAR to last us all the rest of our lives.
First, the actual match. City completely dominated Spurs in any way you might measure such things with the exception of the important one, goals scored. Like a modern day version of Wenger’s Invincibles on a bad day, Pep’s side managed to turn big advantages in possession, shots, and shots on target into far less than you would predict given the talent on hand. On most days, this one would have ended 4-1 but it just wasn’t City’s day and because it wasn’t they have conceded first blood in what we expect is going to be another wire-to-wire thriller with Liverpool for the title.
For Spurs part, this doesn’t really confirm their credentials as title contenders. They are a very strong side to be sure and, assuming Christen Eriksen doesn’t leave before the window closes, they shouldn’t have any trouble maintaining their top four status. Still, if they’re honest with themselves, they will consider themselves lucky that their hosts weren’t more clinical with their work in the final third. A point at the Etihad is more than most of their rivals for top four spots are likely to get so consider this a bonus point in the final table.
As for individual players. Exceptional finishes from Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero shouldn’t overshadow the service from Kevin De Bruyne on both goals. The Belgian’s return to the line-up means that Pep Guardiola has the option to rotate David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, and De Bruyne between Aguero at the tip of the spear and Rodri at the base despite already losing Leroy Sané for the season. That’s depth of quality that we haven’t seen in the Premier League. Never forgetting that this column is, at its root, for fantasy managers it may provide some frustrating weekends of rotation – my colleague Chuck Booth had to face me in draft with four City attackers (Aguero, Jesus, Mahrez, and David Silva) of whom three came off the bench – but in the real world all that talent should be fresh all season due to their depth.
On the Spurs side, Tanguy Ndombele continued to impress delivering strong work in midfield along with an assist on Lamela’s goal. Many likely wrote off Ndombele’s goal in the opener as more one-off than beginning of a trend. Too many were fooled by Rúben Neves’ goal to start last season to be fooled into over-investing in a holding midfielder who scored an early one again. With a goal and an assist in two matches including a match against the defending champions means that we should start thinking about his potential to deliver counting stats in addition to the actions beyond the box score that we all expected given his transfer price.
Finally, to the VAR controversy. STOP. This is not a VAR problem. The powers-that-be that make the rules in football rewrote the handball rule over the summer to say that Aymeric Laporte’s touch should invalidate the goal despite his arm having been in a “natural” position that barely influenced the path of the ball. It is lazy to blame VAR for providing the platform for the match officials to identify that a bad rule had been violated. Don’t spend time “fixing” VAR, VAR got it right. Spend your time and your emotion blaming the people who rewrote the rules into something that didn’t make sense.
If your logic in decrying VAR is that, in years past, human error – in this case, the referee not seeing that Laporte had touched it with his hand due to the scrum – would have meant that the poorly-considered rule wouldn’t have been enforced, I have no time for you. Two wrongs – bad rule and poor enforcement – don’t make a right. So far, we’ve had two VAR controversies in two weeks involving City (and Gabriel Jesus) goals and, in both cases, the root cause is disagreement with the underlying rule. As written, Raheem Sterling caused the play to be offside and Laporte handled in a way that invalidated the goal. I have complete sympathy for the notion that both should have been good goals but the rules are the rules and VAR is just there to help the officials see what actually happened. VAR did its job and pointed out that ill-conceived rules had been broken.
The Title Race
First blood to Liverpool. The Reds weren’t spectacular by any stretch against feeder club Southampton. The first half was subpar and if the opposition had been stronger things could have looked different. It took Adrián being let off the hook on the first of his two howlers (he wasn’t so lucky on the second) and Danny Ings missing a sitter from Jan Vallery’s cross for Jurgen Klopp’s men to leave the south coast with three points. Perhaps the mid-week extra time exertions against Chelsea in the Super Cup took their toll. Whatever the reason, if Liverpool don’t improve on the form they’ve shown against likely bottom-half opposition in Weeks 1 and 2 then the visit of Arsenal in Week 3 could be more interesting than expected.
Still, despite the poor form, Liverpool emerge from the weekend two points clear of Manchester City. Yes, it’s absurdly early in the season to be talking about such things but given the pace that both sides set last season it’s hard not to consider every point crucial in this title race.
The Big Surprise
I teased that Norwich City were a pleasant surprise in defeat in last Monday’s column and they made me look smart pretty quickly. Newcastle aren’t exactly going to light the world on fire but it isn’t often that newly promoted sides cruise to 3-1 victories and get a hattrick this early in their promotion season. The Canaries lost one of their key attacking cogs from last season, Onel Hernández, to a knee injury in midweek so what did they do? They brought in a 21-year-old who proceeded to create two goals for Teemu Pukki. Not exactly Riyad Mahrez coming in for Leroy Sané from a pedigree point-of-view but a nice surprise on a weekend when both the Canaries and Sheffield United picked up their first Premier League victory of the season. Now if only Marco Stiepermann had been more involved…
The Weekly Arsenal
Stop me if you’ve read this already but Arsenal have won their first two Premier League matches for the first time in a decade. No, the opposition hasn’t been exceptional but they’ve dropped points in similar situations over that decade. Perhaps even more importantly for those of us who bleed Arsenal red is the fact that there’s still plenty of upside.
The big headline was the first start for Dani Ceballos. He had a few ugly touches to open his career as a substitute at St James Park last weekend but this weekend was something else entirely. He was everything that Arsenal supporters have wanted from Mesut Ozil. He showed a range of passing and dribbling that you want from your number 10 while also putting in the sort of effort and desire that you want from your 6 or 8. The assist on Lacazette’s goal might have been the better technically-speaking but the assist on Aubameyang’s winner was the more gratifying because it was all about the effort he put in to reclaim the ball in the attacking third and get it to a teammate to allow him to perform his magic.
As for the upside, Nicolas Pepe has yet to start but has shown promise as an instigator of attacking movements in his two substitute appearances. David Luiz looked like a solid, above-average center back as advertised. Rob Holding, Héctor Bellerín, and Kieran Tierney won’t be back in time for the upcoming big matches at Anfield and against Spurs in Weeks 3 and 4 but as they come back into the first team the Gunners will have an entirely new defense and some crucial depth blooded in players like Maitland-Niles, Nelsen, and Willock who have all shown significant progress in the playing time they’ve seen due to injuries and more senior players not being ready yet.
My Other Favorites
I’m going to publish before Wolves play against Manchester United on Monday but what a recovery by Leicester City against Chelsea to close out the Sunday program. The Foxes looked like they were going to be overwhelmed in the first 20 minutes. Mason Mount ran roughshod over Brendan Rodgers’ side and could have had two goals by himself. The failure of the Blues to take advantage of their early advantage was telling as Leicester City came back into the match and dominated the second half.
James Maddison was the best player on the pitch in the second half and Frank Lampard was lucky that his side kept the combination of Maddison and Vardy out of goal despite a number of good opportunities.
The early first half troubles remind me a bit of Arsenal’s issues adapting to Unai Emery’s preferred tactics at the beginning of last season. They were trying too hard to play it out of the back with short passes despite the evidence that Chelsea were going to overwhelm those passing lanes with athleticism and numbers. I’m all for preferred tactics but stubbornness in the face of the opposition doing the thing best-suited to undermine your preferred tactics is just foolish. If Leicester City are to move beyond being merely a good top-half side they’ll have to adjust quicker next time out.
As an added note, I’m worried for Chelesa. They looked like world beaters for 20 minutes to start the season at home but that describes plenty of sides every season. As the match wore on and Leicester City figured out how to counter their Plan A there seemed to be precious little by way of a Plan B. For years Plan B has always been “get the ball to Hazard and watch him do something to win the match”. There is no such talent, at least not a fully formed one, in this side. Just being five points off of the pace of Arsenal isn’t the end of the world but being five points off the pace after two weekends without an obvious replacement for your game-changer is a real worry, even more so when Arsenal strengthened significantly over the summer.
Fantasy Ups and Downs
After each weekend, I’ll update players whose fantasy stock is up or down based on what we saw over the weekend.
Stock Down: Adrián + the Liverpool defense – After two consecutive weeks where Liverpool should have expected a clean sheet and failed to produce one, the expectation of matching last season’s stellar production seems unrealistic. It is still early and Alisson’s return could right the ship but there appear to be bigger issues than the goalkeeper. Just something to watch for now.
Stock Up: John Lundstram – A favorite among salary cap players due to being classified as a defender while playing farther up the pitch at a price of 4.0. Throw in a goal and a clean sheet in Week 2 and his popularity will likely soar further. Perhaps look at the upcoming five matches – Leicester City, @Chelsea, Southampton, @Everton, Liverpool – before going out of your way to bring him in as anything other than an enabler to free up salary cap space.
Stock Down: Divock Origi – From Week 1 hero to Week 2 DNP Manager’s Decision (DNP = Did Not Play for those not familiar with the abbreviation).
Stock Up: PUUUUUUUKKKKKKIIIII – Tied with Raheem Sterling atop the goal charts after two weeks. He will certainly be the class of the newly promoted forwards. Do remember that Newcastle aren’t good before you start expecting a 20-goal season though.
Stock Up: Todd Cantwell – Perhaps more important than Pukki’s hat trick, since he was already owned in most draft leagues, was the emergence of Todd Cantwell as the provider on two of the three. An academy player who has been with the club since age 10, the now-21-year-old looks likely to be the beneficiary of Onel Hernández’s knee injury that will have him out for at least three months. At a cost of 4.5 in FPL salary cap, Cantwell is a great bargain enabler despite the Canaries having Chelsea next and City in Week 5.
Stock Down: Marcos Alonso – In case there were any doubts that it was a one-week-only thing, Alonso was left on the bench again against Leicester City.
Stock Up: Leandro Trossard – After missing out on the starting line-up in Week 1 he was there in Week 2 and scored one and had another called back. Trossard vs Gross will continue to be a fascinating question at Brighton given the formation that Graham Potter wants to play but so far, so good for both.
Stock Up: Everton Defense – Two weeks, two clean sheets is something that we weren’t necessarily expecting from a Marco Silva side. A positive development for a team that has a lot of raw attacking power even if it has yet to come together yet.
Stock Down: Watford – Starting off the season with a relatively friendly schedule – home to Brighton and at Everton – should have seen SOME points in the standings or at least, you know, a goal. The Hornets have been in both matches as measured by possession and shots but have struggled to get them on target and, obviously, haven’t converted any of their five SOTs.
Stock Up: Jack Grealish – Villa didn’t pick up a point but Grealish bagged an assist. Typically, an assist on a long-range goal isn’t something to talk about but Grealish has been tipped as a breakout candidate for a few seasons and not unreasonable to think this is part of that breakout.
Stock Down: Moise Kean – The newly arrived attacker has an exceptional upside but at 19-years-old expectations should be modest in the immediate term. Moved to the bench for Dominic Calvert-Lewin if you invested in Kean in draft you might want to reconsider unless you have two others who are guaranteed to start and produce.
Stock Up: Mason Mount – The next Frank Lampard? The former Frank Lampard certainly seems to think so. After two starts and a goal in two matches against top half competition, Mount looks like he has significant potential. At 6.0 in salary cap I’d rather have Ceballos (5.5) but in draft you could do far worse at the back end of your midfield depth chart.
Stock Down: Mepham and Rico – After starting and, in Mepham’s case scoring, in Week 1 both bargain defenders were on the bench at Villa Park in Week 2. Looks like Lundstram is the right answer at the back if you’re looking for a 4.0 enabler.
Stock Up: Olivier Giroud – Well, he started at least although he didn’t score on the day it seems likely that Frank Lampard will rely on Giroud more than Tammy Abraham given the desire to play youth elsewhere in the squad (see Mount, Pulisic, Christensen, and Zouma). The only problem is that you probably need both Giroud and Abraham to make one sufficiently productive forward and that doesn’t justify taking two forward spots in your squad. Who would have guessed that having Ashley Barnes would be better than the combination of Chelsea’s center forwards?
My Fantasy Fortunes
A better week for sure but I’m not exactly sure to what extent yet. As invested as I am in Wolves this season I could definitely go anywhere from 3-1 in my four draft/auction leagues to 1-3 depending on the outcome of the Monday match-up. I have Jota and Jonny in most of my leagues and Matt Doherty in a couple of them as well. In the salary cap game I’m on 47 points with Jota still to play so not terrible there.
Since I don’t have final results to write about, I’ll substitute by letting you know that I’m also in the process of drafting a Togga-style league with 11 other fantasy pundits and experts. The league was put together by John Wallin of The Athletic, 442, and BangAveragePod. We’re two rounds in to the draft that is being done over Google Sheets and so far I have Sergio Agüero and Jamie Vardy. I haven’t done a 12-team league yet this summer so I’ll be very interested to see how the back-half of the draft plays out.
The Waiver Wire
For those that do need to make some changes, here are my thoughts on waiver wire claims for draft leagues:
Goalkeepers – Well, Bernd Leno is off the list for the next two weeks with a trip to Anfield and a visit from Spurs so I’m looking at Ryan from Brighton as a potential waiver wire claim with Southampton visiting in Week 3.
Defenders – Everton have a pretty easy slate and Yerry Mina has to trip to Aston Villa coming up next. He’s a very reasonable choice overall and as a Week 3-only streaming option. Djibril SidIbe is also a very strong option with Lucas Digne potentially out and SidIbe likely coming into the starting line-up eventually anyway.
Midfielders – Dani Ceballos, yes, even against Liverpool at Anfield, is likely the best season-long option available on your waiver wire. There’s also a good chance Mason Mount is available. If someone discarded Leandro Trossard or he was never drafted then he’s a solid bet as well given the upcoming visit of Southampton.
Forwards – Olivier Giroud seems likely to start again in Week 3 and if I were looking for a forward he’d be my choice. Yes, this is me essentially saying that there aren’t likely to be many strong forward options available. If someone like Barnes went undrafted then, by all means, make him yours but I’m hoping that my readers would have done sufficient research that he won’t be available.
No change in my projected Top 6 after two weeks although I feel much better about picking Wolves over Chelsea after the Blues dropped points for the second weekend in a row:
As far as relegation goes, Chuck, I’m on the Sheffield United train with you. They showed something that Watford hasn’t yet so, all “small sample size” caveats aside, I can’t justify keeping the Blades in my projected bottom three after a strong win while Watford have failed to so much as score after two weeks. I don’t think Watford really ends up going down but they need to do something to show signs of life before I move them out of this spot.
Only a few days between the Monday match-up between Wolves and Manchester United and the Friday kick-off between Aston Villa and Everton. Make sure you’re paying attention to your deadlines and enjoy the short break.