Week 12 was a weekend to solidify those things that we already thought we knew about the Premier League season after eleven weeks. Liverpool are the front-runners and there seems to be an ever-growing gap between them and the field. Chelsea and Leicester City are for real. Sheffield United, albeit with a much lower ceiling, are also for real. The Wolves revival from their early-season slump seems to be on. Arsenal and Spurs are a mess and should be legitimately worried about where their seasons will end up. Crystal Palace seem to be fading to something closer to what their talent would suggest. Norwich City, Southampton, and Newcastle are a cut below the rest of “the rest”.
Not exactly the sort of “revelations” upon which long column introductions are made. Still, we will soldier on.
Unfortunately, the way the Liverpool win over Manchester City unfolded, it didn’t leave much room for analysis. Yes, there was a bad VAR call but Liverpool were ahead so early it would take some serious journalistic gymnastics to draw a line from VAR working better to Manchester City getting any sort of a result. I’m also not particularly interested in writing another VAR story even though it is fertile ground between the outcome in this match, the Sheffield United goal that was disallowed on what didn’t appear to be “clear and obvious” evidence, and any others that I might have missed over the weekend.
Instead of focusing on a massive intro to cover something that has a logical place elsewhere in the column, I’m going to move right into our regular schedule of topics and see where that takes us.
The Title Race
This was certainly a massive statement. Liverpool left no doubt that they are the front-runners. In American sports, there is a long-standing tradition of emerging dynasties having to get close to a championship only to suffer a defeat to a more established rival before eventually “learning to win it all”. The analogy of the Michael Jordan era Chicago Bulls having to overcome the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons isn’t perfect because the NBA only offers a single championship while Liverpool clearly won a massive honor last season in the Champions League.
Still, cup competitions are different in that they require excellence in short bursts rather than the marathon of excellence associated with winning a Premier League title over the course of ten months or so. It feels like going THISclose last season while also winning the Champions League gave Liverpool the confidence to kick on and do what is necessary to win the Premier League this time around.
There is clearly still a long and winding road to go before a title is secured but this team seems to have added just that much more to the mentality side of the equation to supplement what was already an exceptional squad of players.
The Big Surprise
This has to go to Sheffield United. Perhaps getting a result against Spurs isn’t so surprising for anyone these days in the same way that getting a result against Arsenal isn’t a big surprise either. Still, Sheffield United were given almost no chance of surviving. They didn’t spend big. The squad wasn’t chocked full of either well-known Premier League veterans or high-flying youngsters tabbed for future stardom at bigger clubs. They have taken a more Burnley-like approach which focuses on system and effort as much as any outstanding individual talent.
One thing to contemplate as we look at what has gone right at Bramall Lane, is just what could have been at Bournemouth if the Cherries had had just a little more patience. They already have a pretty handy squad for a club without outsized spending power. This season we’re seeing two of their recent sales – Tyrone Mings and Lys Mousset – emerge with the types of seasons that Eddie Howe expected when he purchased them. Both players had star-crossed experiences at the Vitality Stadium and this isn’t a criticism of the Cherries for moving them on, just an idle daydream about the sorts of decisions that go right or wrong that end in a mid-table club making a Leicester City-like assault on the Champions League places vs just being solid mid-table clubs.
The Weekly Arsenal
So, here’s where I am with Arsenal. I’m done with expectations until Unai Emery is gone. For whatever reason, it isn’t working. I was in the same position with Arsene Wenger before many others. At least then I saw the concern of parting with a club legend who held responsibility for nearly everything that went on at the club. Even if the marriage wasn’t working with Wenger at the first team level the divorce decision was always much more complicated than those results. Plus, you know, he had a legacy that was second-to-only-one in the modern Premier League era.
We, as supporters, were told in the wake of the Wenger era was that the club would never be held hostage by a single figure in management the way they were with Wenger. They would be bringing in a team to replace him. Responsibilities would be divided. If someone wasn’t performing, be it the manager or academy director or transfer guru, they could be switched out without forcing an entire system reboot.
Well, here it is. It isn’t going well for Emery. I’m not naïve enough to call him a bad manager. He has enough of a track record that it would be disingenuous to do so. What I can say with a fair amount of certainty is that things can go wrong for good managers at specific stops in their career. Maybe he believes too much of his own press after ascending to managing “big clubs”. Maybe there is some friction behind the scenes that we aren’t privy to that is unique to the situation between him and others behind the scenes at Arsenal. Maybe his alienation of specific players – Ozil, Mustafi, and Xhaka – has undermined him with the rest of the squad.
Whatever the reason, it clearly isn’t working out. Persisting with Emery at this point is just wasting time. I’m certainly not advocating an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer-like approach by appointing Freddie Ljungberg for the balance of the season if the right longer-term candidate isn’t available. What it would do is at least offer SOMETHING different. Some chance to see what it is that is broken. If the right longer-term candidate of the Luis Enrique-like aisle then make that move. Ultimately, though, the club just needs to make a move.
Until they do, all of my emotional energy associated with the Premier League will be invested in my fantasy teams and hoping that Leicester City, Wolves, and Sheffield United can continue punching above their respective financial weight because those are fun stories.
My Other Favorites
Perhaps the most jarring part of the Foxes 2-0 win over Arsenal was that I fully expected it. And I expected it not because I expected a more talented Arsenal side to make a few critical errors leading to defeat (although that’s never far from my list of concerns) but because I think the Foxes starting line-up is just more talented than Arsenal’s.
You could certainly argue position-by-position between Vardy and Aubameyang or Leno and Schmeichel but there isn’t a position on the pitch where you couldn’t make the case that the player suiting up for Brendan Rodgers would be preferred to the one suiting up for Unai Emery this season. Even more importantly, the pieces at Leicester City just seem to fit much more logically together. One of Emery’s issues seems to be that he has to make sub-optimal line-up decisions because there are too many overlapping skill sets and too many spots where there isn’t an obvious player for a specific role. You look at the players in the Leicester City squad and it is obvious where each fits and it shows on the pitch.
The thing that should have struck everyone who watched the match was that, for a change, Arsenal weren’t undone by embarrassing defensive gaffes. Instead, they were beaten by excellent attacking moves from very good players playing well together. At the other end, they were thwarted from responding in kind by good defending in the face of what continues to be a disjointed attack despite some strong individual talents.
On the Wolves front, the result wasn’t particularly revelatory. A nice win over Aston Villa was only important, at least in my mind, because it showed Nuno Espirito Santo’s side figuring out how to break down a stubborn, defense-first side in Aston Villa. The Villains aren’t exactly Atletico Madrid so this isn’t a huge breakthrough but they are the sort of side that Wolves have disappointed against in the past. Consider it a step in the right direction without being a massive change in how we think about them.
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: Bernd Leno/Paulo Gazzaniga – Until the issues in North London are cleared up there isn’t much in the way of hope that there will be clean sheets to support either as anything other than a reserve/spot squad member in 8-team leagues.
Stock Up: Nick Pope – Perhaps Burnley’s run through the doldrums has ended with the clean sheet in Week 12. With Watford and Palace the next two up before a match with City there’s at least some hope that the run continues into early December.
Stock Down: Sokratis – Rob Holding is better at his peak that the Greek international and now that Holding is healthy, it seems likely that he will be given a chance at a run of starts. David Luiz was Emery’s choice so it seems more likely that he’ll continue as the starter alongside Holding.
Stock Up: Reese James – A start over a healthy César Azpilicueta on the right of the Chelsea back line. Throw in that the Blues kept what has been a rare-for-them clean sheet and his stock is up. I’m not suggesting that he’s won the job long-term at this point but if I were looking ahead to summer 2020 ratings ahead of next fantasy season then I’d be backing James’ to rise significantly.
Stock Down: Kieran Tierney – The Tierney-as-presumptive-starter era didn’t last nearly as long as I’d expected. With Sead Kolasinac reassuming the starting role for a presumably-healthy Tierney against the Foxes, we could be looking at a fantasy-unfriendly job share.
Stock Up: Ben Davies – Two consecutive 90 minute appearances in the league. Spurs defense is still a mess but Davies could offer some buy-low value in draft leagues if there are eventually some signs of hope at Tottenham Stadium.
Stock Down: Joao Cancelo – And, just like that, Cancelo is back to being a reserve. *sigh*
Stock Up: Djbril SidIbe – Four consecutive league starts and two matches in a row with an assist as Seamus Coleman watches from the bench (presumably) healthy. Good news for SidIbe’s playing time prospects going forward.
Stock Down: Pedro – It would appear that he’s now behind Pulisic, Mount, Willian, and Callum Hudson-Odoi in the pecking order. Major League Soccer’s off-season started today, I wonder if he’s on anyone’s shopping list. He seems like he’d be a solid pick-up.
Stock Up: Heung-Min Son – Perhaps the only Spurs player who has survived the current malaise with his fantasy value intact, or maybe even enhanced.
Stock Down: Pascal Gross – Yes, he registered an assist in the loss to Manchester United but with Leandro Trossard taking his starting spot, it seems likely that his opportunity to contribute will be diminished going forward.
Stock Up: Ryan Fraser – Harry Wilson had the bigger match but Fraser’s assist was his first fantasy contribution of note since Week 5. Hopefully, we’ll see a renaissance from one of last season’s fantasy stars.
Stock Down: Mesut Ozil – Anyone who thought his reinsertion into the starting line-up might inspire a fantasy revival has been sorely disappointed.
Stock Up: Allan Saint-Maximin – He finally broke through with an assist. If Newcastle were a better attacking side I’d have hopes for more as I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Saint-Maximin but, alas, he’s no better than a Hail Mary fantasy selection on this team.
Stock Down: Aaron Connally – Two great matches in three weeks created some significant fanfare in the fantasy universe. It all seems to be calming down now. Certainly one to monitor given his tender age but not one to be counted on at this stage.
Stock Up: Wesley – Passed Sébastien Haller in the overall fantasy points standings over this past weekend. I suspect you could have had Wesley far later in most drafts so kudos to you if you drafted him and stuck with him through some early struggles.
Stock Up: Anthony Martial – Look at that, Manchester United look much better with actual proven attackers in the side.
My Fantasy Fortunes
I had very good weeks for points production in the IEFSA and League of Champions. I lost both anyway. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and be okay with the fact that you ran into a good team that had everything break right for them that week. It was almost inevitable in the IEFSA since I am the definition of a .500 side and I was one win to the good just begging to be pegged back.
I hit a bit of a bump in the Rotoworld league losing by two points while both of the teams ahead of me picked up wins. I did, however, pick up a rare win in the FPL Panel league which brought my season total to a Norwich City-like 7 points for the season…yikes.
The Waiver Wire
As you start looking forward to the last match week before the international break, here are some thoughts on waiver priorities:
Goalkeepers – If Dean Henderson is available then I like him against Newcastle for managers who are streaming goalkeepers. I’m loath to say it but after trashing his value above, Bernd Leno against Southampton at the Emirates might be an emergency second choice in the waiver market.
Defenders – Leicester City have a nice run of matches coming up and while I’m certain that Chilwell, Ricardo, and Soyuncu are all owned, it might be time to give Jonny Evans a run if you’re in need of a defender. Whichever Burnley defender that might be available (Ben Mee?) would be a short term alternative.
Midfielders – With Norwich City next up for the Toffees, I’d be looking to whichever attackers it looks like will start. Theo Walcott has, improbably, been getting a lot of time and it might be the ideal time for him to turn back the clock to a time when he was a thing.
Forwards – See above but insert Cenk Tosun as a likely-available-and-recently-starting player with a great match-up. Omit the part about turning back the clock on Tosun’s part, he’s never been good but he’s been the sort of forward who has made life miserable for the Canaries.
The Top Six
The only question in my top six right now is whether Manchester City deserves to stay in the second place. I am on a never-ending quest to eliminate brand reputation from current performance and the eye test tells us that both Chelsea and Leicester City are playing better than the Citizens. I’m still one week away from pulling the trigger out of respect for Pep and the depth of amazing talent on hand but we’re starting the conversation. I’m pulling Arsenal and Spurs out of the group. I suspect that at least one of them will finish in the top six because the bar is fairly low but neither deserve to be thought of that way on current form so I’m going with Wolves and Sheffield United.
OK, since I last published this list Newcastle has done enough to jump out and let the Saints replace them at the bottom of the list.
Enjoy the international break and we’ll be back at it leading up to Week 13 early next week.