It’s always odd writing this column on a Monday when there is a Monday match and even more so when Arsenal are involved in that Monday match. It means that, despite this being a column meant to wrap up the match week, I’m trying to do so when it isn’t actually over. When Arsenal haven’t played yet, it is personally even more that way because the thing that is most important to me in that match week hasn’t actually happened yet.
Still, regardless of what transpires at Bramall Lane later today, it has been quite a weekend. Just when we think we know what the Premier League is going to deliver, we are proven to be hilariously wrong.
Seriously, Manchester United holding Liverpool to a draw was surprising but it wasn’t impossible to see that coming. United were playing at home. They have been playing solid defense even if the attack has been disjointed, injured, and not very productive. At the same point, Liverpool have been just barely getting by against average opposition in the league for about a month now. Throw in an injury to Mo Salah and a surprising draw was at least plausible.
Likewise, Spurs have been pretty abject so them dropping two points to Watford was plausible even if we all expected them to bounce back because this one was at home and most of the rot has seeped in on the road for the Champions League runners-up. A surprising draw at the new stadium? Definitely. A complete shock? Hardly.
The real shocker of the weekend was Bournemouth and Norwich City getting together and putting on a nil-nil draw. The Canaries have been giving up goals like that is actually the point of the game. The Cherries have been more successful in terms of results but they hadn’t been much better at staging low-scoring affairs. Neither had kept a clean sheet coming into the weekend with Norwich City averaging 4 goals scored between the two sides in their match-ups through Week 8 while the Cherries matches averaged 3.25 goals scored total. The resistible force of Norwich City’s defense was going to meet the moveable object of Bournemouth’s, goals would surely rain in and fantasy teams were adjusted accordingly. Well, we’re still waiting for the first one.
For anyone who writes about the Premier League or fantasy games or gambling, it was one of those outcomes where you just smack yourself in the forehead as you see it unfolding. Here’s hoping you added Diego Rico and his clean sheet on my advice rather than Harry Wilson and his lack of any assists.
After the frustration of this week’s results though, it is a wonderful reminder of the randomness of small sample sizes. The process that led to thinking that there were going to be lots of goals and lots of fantasy points was solid. The numbers and trends all pointed to it. But a single ninety-minute match is a small enough sample size that anything can happen. Norwich City can beat Manchester City. Brighton can beat Spurs 3-0. Even a poorly managed club shorn of all its proven attackers can beat the most famous club in the land on the back of a goal from a 19-year-old getting his first start. Anything can happen and that’s why we watch.
The Title Race
I really don’t have a horse in this race in terms of my rooting interest. What I do have is an interest in their being a race so this was a good weekend. Liverpool dropping some points was inevitable but it’s nice to see that it is actually going to happen. The Reds are still the heavy favorites but the race is tighter than it was and Liverpool are showing that they aren’t going to pull out three points from all of their mediocre performances throughout the season.
The Big Surprise
Despite what I wrote about Norwich City and Bournemouth’s nil-nil, I do consider Spurs drawing at home to Watford to be the big surprise of the weekend. Perhaps it’s the pessimist Gooner in me but I keep waiting for the ship to be righted at Tottenham Stadium and everyone to realize that there’s a lot of talent on hand. Certainly, too much to be dropping home points to the likes of Watford.
José Mourinho is enough of an iconoclast that I understand why things go south quickly once he starts falling out with a team. His genius was always predicated on creating an “us-against-the-world” mentality to motivate his sides to excellence. Once that message went astray it was never a long journey to “me-against-the-world-including-my-own-players”.
The reason that the current state of affairs at Spurs is surprising to me is that I never considered Mauricio Pochettino to have that same type of potential. Yes, he is similar in that he has clearly motivated multiple sides to consistently execute a high-effort style and, in doing so, punch above some of the deficiencies that come with having limited finances compared to their perceived peers. The difference is that there haven’t been the implosions or controversy that have marked the end of Mourinho’s time at his various stops.
Those of us on the outside observing what goes on at a club through the lens of week-to-week results can’t know the reality of how the sausage is made at each club. The perception has been that things were pretty smooth at Tottenham until the cracks started showing over the summer. The surprise isn’t that the fall is coming so much as how quickly it seems to have happened.
The Weekly Arsenal
Not too much to comment on here given that the Gunners haven’t played yet. Perhaps just a mention that all Arsenal supporters should be terrified of Leicester City. Just as the Foxes pipped the Gunners to the one title they could plausibly have won in the latter half of Wenger’s reign, they are looking like a very plausible threat to pip one of Arsenal or Chelsea to one of the two Champions League places not already destined for Liverpool and Manchester City. Discount the Foxes at your own peril. The results are strong and it doesn’t feel like that is on the back of anyone having an outrageous or unsustainable start to the season.
My Other Favorites
Since I mentioned the Foxes in the Weekly Arsenal section, I’ll take this space to discuss the conundrum that is Wolves. They, like many of this weekend’s results, continue to defy expectation. After finishing in a European spot last season, we put them in the rather general broad category of “good team that we have significant expectations of”. Usually, that comes with an assumption that they will be better at home than on the road and that they will beat bottom-half teams, especially at home.
Those general characteristics didn’t apply to Wolves last season as they ascended the ranks and it doesn’t appear to fit them any better this season now that everyone expects them to be good. Perhaps we were fooled by their Europa League qualifying results (they were dominant against overmatched sides) or by a few losses to brand-name Premier League sides in Chelsea and Everton. What we should have been looking at is their propensity to grind out draws with middling Premier League sides who don’t go all-out trying to attack them.
Draws against Leicester City, Crystal Palace, and Burnley all look much better in retrospect and taken outside of the context of the entirety of their start to the season. Wolves play it close to the vest and are at their best when you come at them. I fully expect them to demolish Arsenal again if the Gunners attempt to take the game to Nuno Espirito Santo’s side. Similarly, Manchester City looked very Arsenal-ish in the absence of just about everyone who could lay claim to the title of center back.
The likes of Southampton or Crystal Palace just don’t commit the type of resources forward to be caught up when Wolves hit back. None of Wolves’ attackers are in possession of the types of exceptional skills that will break down a conservative approach from their opponents. Collectively, they are solid-but-not-great working the ball around the box when in possession.
The reason to write about this isn’t to criticize, there just aren’t that many players outside of the big six that could provide a cutting edge against mid-table sides without significantly detracting from the rest of the system. The point in mentioning this is that, as fantasy managers, we have to think about Wolves differently than we think about most of their current peers. After a season and a quarter of evidence, they seem equally likely to win, lose, or draw against almost any opposition. They have no player that is an absolute must-start at this point and no starter who you definitely want to bench in obvious situations like @ManchesterCity.
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: Paulo Gazzaniga – Nothing against Spurs’ new starter personally but Rome seems to be burning around him so one week into his new role as starter you may want to reconsider how worthy he is of a spot in your squad.
Stock Up: Jordan Pickford – Hey, look at that, Everton continue to be unpredictable under Marco Silva. The Toffees looked strong against West Ham and helped boost Pickford’s value back up after weeks of fantasy frustration.
Stock Down: Aaron Cresswell – Just when it looked like he has nailed down the starting job he succumbed to injury again. Given the results at Goodison Park, you’d expect he’ll get his spot back once he’s healthy but nagging injuries have dogged Cresswell. He’s the Aaron Ramsey of mid-table left backs.
Stock Up: Harvey Barnes – Three assists in his past three matches. It would be nice if he actually got to finish matches (he’s only played as many as 80 minutes once so far this season) but you have to like how effective he is when he does play.
Stock Down: Emerson – Never good when you’re out injured and your replacement both scores a goal and contributes to a clean sheet.
Stock Up: Matt Targett – Three matches played after returning to the line-up and he’s managed a clean sheet, an assist, and a goal. That’s good for a total of 24 points across three matches. Surely, not sustainable but worthy of a spot on the end of your bench even if the Villains have a brutal stretch of matches coming up.
Stock Down: Che Adams – Danny Ings has been incredibly efficient when he has started and Adams has been anything but. Adams’ only real opportunity at this point is going to be the fact that Ings still doesn’t seem like he’s able to play a full schedule after all of his injuries.
Stock Up: Joao Cancelo – Two consecutive starts have people (like me) who had him in multiple leagues earlier in the season scrambling to try to get him back in on the chance that he’s going to be a regular starter for a top two side.
Stock Down: Christian Eriksen – It’s all starting to feel a little Ozil-ish with Eriksen and Spurs, isn’t it? I’m not doubting that he has a dead leg but it seems to be something different every week that keeps the Dane from starting for Spurs. He’s played just over half of the available Premier League minutes without a significant injury as the cause.
Stock Up: Callum Hudson-Odoi – Three matches back and three assists. The youth just won’t stop delivering for the Blues under Frank Lampard.
Stock Down: Gylfi Sigurdsson – Yes, he came on and scored a wonderful goal but it can’t be good news that Marco Silva’s answer to “how do I jumpstart my struggling side” was to remove the Iceland international in favor of playing three wide players – Iwobi, Walcott, and Bernard – behind Richarlison.
Stock Up: Benjamin Mendy – We know what he can do at his best and he’s healthy again and looking to make a run at locking down the left back role again.
Stock Down: Kevin De Bruyne – What did he do to Gabriel Jesus to cause the forward to try a tight-angle shot rather than pass to a WIDE OPEN KDB? Likewise, what did he do to the powers-that-be at VAR HQ that saw them ignore a clear penalty against everyone’s favorite Belgian playmaker?
Stock Down: Mo Salah – This isn’t to imply that the Egyptian has slipped or that he’s anything other than a great player but given the resources invested in the form of salary cap space taken up or draft position used, managers have to be frustrated with the points return being only four points more than that of David Silva who costs 4.8 less in PL.com salary cap and who was drafted in the 3rd round or later of most 8-team draft leagues (vs. Salah who went no lower than 3rd overall).
Stock Up: Christian Pulisic – He might not be able to break past Hudson-Odoi and Willian who are both in good form at the moment but we’re starting to see the guy who justified the massive transfer fee when he does get a start. I wouldn’t bet against him once he gets his chance at a run of starts. An attacking quartet of Pulisic, Hudson-Odoi, Mount, and Abraham for the next 8-to-10 years must make the Board at Manchester United incredibly jealous.
My Fantasy Fortunes
The dream may finally be over in the League of Champions. I am facing a small deficit but I only have Bernd Leno left to play. I give myself a 50/50 chance of maintaining my 100% start to the season.
Elsewhere, I’m facing longer odds of success. In the IEFSA league I’m facing a massive 36 point gap heading into Monday Night Football but have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and John Egan to go while @SportsbyGotti has seen all of his players play. All the more reason to be rooting for the Gunners (not that I ever need any additional reason).
My PL.com leagues continue to be a bit of a disaster. I do have a lead over Jeremy in our Rotoworld League with Lundstram, Tierney, and Lacazette still to play (or 4 points from Fraser and PVA if one or both of Tierney and Laca don’t feature). I don’t see any way I’m going to lose that one but I’m going to need a massive match from Lacazette and Pepe to win either my FPL Panel or Clash Across the Pond matches. I’ll never write off a fantasy league out of hopelessness, especially when I’m playing fellow FPL pundits, but it does seem like time to adjust my expectations for the FPL Panel and Clash Across the Pond leagues from “hope to win” to “hope not to embarrass myself”.
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 – I’m still on the Bernd Leno bandwagon for a long-term, plausibly available play. For next week only, I’m thinking Mat Ryan might look good because there’s no way that Everton play well when people are expecting them to.
Defenders – Speaking of clubs who don’t do what we expect, I’ll refer back to the Wolves section above and suggest that Newcastle and Jetro Willems look like a strong option at home against a Wolves side that will struggle to break down the Longstaff wall.
Midfielders – Willian didn’t get much playing time at the start of the season. Once he did, starting in Week 4, he didn’t do much with it. Over the past three weeks, he’s been more productive. It could certainly be a small sample size thing but he seems like the sort of guy who is up for the fight that will be on offer at Turf Moor. If he’s not your cup of tea then Leandro Trossard might find his way back in the starting line-up with Aaron Mooy suspended.
Forwards – Still not likely to be much available so, when it doubt, go for an attacker playing against Arsenal to make an unexpected contribution. Step up Jordan Ayew. If not, look for Diogo Jota to return to the starting line-up after making the bench on Saturday. He may be available given his struggles followed by injury.
The Top Six
It’s really hard to pick a team for the 6th spot. Manchester United and Spurs are struggling mightily and seem to have deep-seeded problems. Picking from among the likes of Palace, Burnley, Bournemouth, West Ham, and Wolves seems like placing too much confidence in any of those sides. Until someone really asserts themselves with a run of results, I’m going to stick with the most talented side (Spurs) to figure it out but I have exactly zero conviction about it.
Goals were going to be Norwich City’s salvation and they seem to have dried up. Yes, the Canaries picked up a point but if the early-season goals were more illusion than reality then there seems to be little hope. At least Watford have some slightly above average players who could start rounding into form.
With the Monday match still to come, it’s a quick turnaround with a Friday match between Southampton and Leicester City. Saturday will feature some interesting mid-table matches before a real test of Frank Lampard’s Chelsea youth revolution as they head to Turf Moor to see if they have the resolve and grit to battle Sean Dyche’s side.
Sunday will present the real fascination of the weekend. Can Wolves break through against a Newcastle side that will surely not come out and try to attack them? Can Arsenal break down a thus-far-resolute Crystal Palace while avoiding giving up goals on the counter? Finally, in the big-name battle of the weekend, which of Liverpool and Spurs will rebound faster and stronger? Spurs, for their struggles against the lesser-lights of the league, have acquitted themselves well against with draws against Arsenal and Manchester City.