I've been thinking a lot about resiliency this week. My 14-month-old son had hernia surgery on Tuesday (it never threatened his health or well-being but it was still incredibly stressful since it was surgery on a small child). He came out of surgery at about 1:30 PM on Tuesday afternoon and he was a mess all afternoon and evening. Whether it was the pain from the surgery, the confusion from all of the chemicals going through his body (first anesthesia and then painkillers), or just the overall stress on body and mind of what had happened he understandably wasn't himself. My wife and I alternated being with him while he was like this throughout Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. I came down to relieve her at about 5 AM on Wednesday morning and he was still (again, understandably) not acting like himself. He napped for about 2 more hours on my lap and then at 7 AM, suddenly, he was himself again. He wanted to get out of my lap and walk around and talk. The burst of energy was short-lived and he was back and sleeping again by about 9:30 AM but even that was a remarkable recovery from what we'd seen for the previous 18 hours or so.
The same theme jumped out at me as I was thinking about the matches that are coming up this weekend and the teams vying or the league title and Champions League spots. Here are some brief thoughts on the issues faced by each of the top teams and my perception of the resiliency that they have or haven't seemed to show thus far:
- Arsenal - This has been the big issue at Arsenal for years. They'd be in contention through the early part of the season but they would inevitably hit a bad patch at some point after the holidays and that would be that. It would take them long enough to rebound that they'd be out of their various cup competitions and hopelessly adrift from title contention. They showed some resiliency after this period last season in powering up to the fourth spot that should have gone to Spurs but for Arsenal's exceptional late-season showing. This year the "issues" have been mostly self-created between little early-summer transfer activity and the opening loss to Aston Villa but they have rebounded nicely in both cases and shrugged off the League Cup loss to Chelsea and home CL loss to Dortmund to score impressive wins against Liverpool at home and Dortmund on the road. They seem to finally have come up with a formula for the mental part of the game in addition to the stylistic part. Next up is the site of their low point of the Wenger Era, Old Trafford where they lost 8-2 to United early in the 2011-12 season.
- Chelsea - The problem here is separating our recollections of Chelsea under Mourinho the first time around - among the more mentally tough teams in recent memory - with the Chelsea of Mourinho this time around. Both teams feature loads of talent and the current edition will win their share on that alone but this new group seems far less ruthless and tough than the last. It may be that we are expecting too much transformation too soon after a 6th place finish in the table two seasons ago and 14 points adrift of the title last season. The mediocre away record including losses to solid-but-not-great Everton (without Lukaku) and Newcastle clubs that feel like they would have at least been draws under the old Mourinho regime leave you wanting some evidence that Chelsea are worthy of their current place in the table.
- Liverpool - They have the talent to thrash inferior opponents and have done so frequently. My impression is that they seem to be where Arsenal have been in recent seasons. Clearly better than "the rest" but not quite sure how to make it happen when presented with a big challenge. Liverpool supporters will surely point to their home win against Manchester United as a counter-point to my opening statement but the mental value of that win has declined since it happened as Manchester United have shown themselves to be something less than the giant Liverpool thought they had slain. Losses in critical matches against Southampton and Arsenal are the picture we will have of these Reds until they have a chance to show some resiliancy December away matches at Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea after Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho and Gerrard have had plenty of 2013 minutes together.
- Tottenham - The problem with evaluating Spurs resilience objectively this season has to do with expectations. After selling Gareth Bale in the summer and replacing him with a load of players with very good reputations from their previous stops, the popular perception was that Spurs were Champions League contenders for certain and maybe even title aspirants given all the chaos elsewhere. What this analysis failed to account for was that Spurs, minus Bale's exceptional contribution, were mediocre last season. The thing about trading exceptional talent for depth is that you can still only play 11 players at once. In my mind, Spurs have been resilient in the face of unrealistic expectation so far this season. They still need to improve their attacking play but they seem to have the mental fortitude to take the slings and arrows of the media and supporters complaining about their performances thus far and continue grinding out results as they figure out how to shape an attack around so many new faces. Before we judge Erik Lamela, Christen Eriksen, Roberto Soldado, et all too harshly let's remember that at this point last season, Olivier Giroud, Per Mertesacker and Aaron Ramsey were all being dismissed as below the standard. Sometimes these things take time and Spurs must continue to be mentally strong enough to crank out ugly wins and draws while their new players adapt.
- Manchester City - City under Pellegrini are still something of a mystery in this regard. They have been dominant at home now that Aguero, Negredo, Silva, and Yaya are all playing together. Their undoing seems to be that, despite spending a ton of money on central defenders in recent seasons, they can't seem to cope on the road without Vincent Kompany. Throw in Joe Hart's issues and it seems like City are just missing something so far this season. Like Liverpool, we probably made some early assumptions based on their thrashing of United earlier on in the season but like Liverpool, we need to adjust our evaluation of that win based on United's mediocre performances since. Their best strategy in the absence of Kompany seems to be leaning on their exceptional group of attackers to not only score goals but to keep the ball out of their defensive half but when confronted with a strong opponent (Chelsea and Bayern Munich) they've played relatively conservatively either by how they positioned their players (Bayern) or who they started (Chelsea). In neither case did they play like an exceptional team. This one seems to be on the manager as much as the players. The question for the players after multiple years of Champions League group stage disappointments and a distant second place finish "defending" their title is whether they can convince themselves that they are really as good as their talent seems to indicate that they should be.
- Manchester United - The connection between my son's post-surgery resiliency and United's test against Arsenal this coming Sunday is really the reason for this opening. Resiliency and mental toughness were two of the defining traits of the Alex Ferguson Era at Old Trafford. Whether it came in the form of late goals to salvage points that would have been lost for all other teams, scoring early in a big match to put the other team at a disadvantage, or the marked lack of extended dips in collective form, Sir Alex's teams weren't always the most talented but you could always count on them intimidating opponents with their will. We saw a glimpse of this re-emerging two weekends ago against Stoke but that's Stoke. What United have to show now given that Sir Alex isn't around to embue the team with the benefit of the doubt is that they can do the same thing in big matches. This weekend will provide the opportunity, will they continue to show progress?
Now, on to the news that matters and how it matters. Here's the consolidated team news from ESPNFC.com and below is all the analysis you need to make last minute tweaks to your line-up. Before you read the rest of this article, here are some other articles to check out as you're picking your team The Week 11 Free Kick | First XI: Week 11 | Nik's Player Picks Week 11
Norwich City v West Ham United - Hard to get too excited about these two teams under any circumstances. Both have had trouble scoring goals and West Ham have been solid in limiting them but putting too much investment on West Ham on the road seems a lot to ask. I'm just staying away.
Southampton v Hull City - As frustrating as Stoke's goal was last weekend, the fact that it took a fluke for the Saints to let in a goal underscores how good their defense has been. Hull have been shut out on the road in three of their five away matches and scored more than one only once. The long term absence of Sone Aluko and the potential absence of Robbie Brady will only bolster Southampton's chances of getting a clean sheet. Danny Graham is back in contention too but I'll resist the opportunity to link that with an increased chance of another Southampton clean sheet.
Chelsea v West Bromwich - You're not picking anyone from West Brom for a match at Stamford Bridge so we'll focus on Chelsea here. The next Fernando Torres rebirth is over (told you) with an injury that will keep him out until after the international break. Samuel Eto'o is a reasonable pick given the opposition and lack of competition for the spot although he has still only had one exceptional match and he had to cheat in that one (sorry, his taking of the ball from Marshall was a blatant foul that went uncalled) to make it exceptional. Even Oscar, who has been very good in the real world, has been something less than spectacular from a fantasy point-of-view - he scores goals from midfield which is great but he does almost nothing else that is captured as fantasy statistics (e.g., assists, SOTs, SCs, PIs). Not much else on the injury or suspension front here worth discussing.
Aston Villa v Cardiff City - Christian Benteke is the big opportunity here and Villa's injuries (to other players) are the reason that I'm a little concerned going with Benteke. The big Belgian has been very good when the focal point of an attack featuring some speed (Agbonlahor) and guile (Weimann) but those two players will both be absent for the match with a Cardiff City team that have been pretty good defensively on the road against all of their opponents other than Chelsea (4 goals) and West Ham (2 goals that could probably be written off to opening day jitters). Benteke is still a reasonable bet but beware of Villa being diminished in attack due to absences.
Liverpool v Fulham - Liverpool look likely to dominate this one on the way to Martin Jol being dumped as Fulham manager. The big question is whether Coutinho will start (which seems likely) and how much you trust Liverpool's defense which welcomes Glen Johnson back but hasn't kept a clean sheet since September 1st. I'd be inclined to go with as many of Suarez, Sturridge, Gerrard and Coutinho that you can fit in your squad and afford.
Crystal Palace v Everton - Another seemingly unbalanced match-up. Romelu Lukaku has been cleared to play after picking up a knock by running his knee into Hugo Lloris' head last weekend. There isn't any other significant news to report and adding an Everton player or two (Lukaku, Baines and maybe Tim Howard) seems like a very good idea.
Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle - Spurs welcome back Hugo Lloris despite the fact that he probably wouldn't be eligible to start this week in most American sports. Despite the match being at White Hart Lane and Spurs being very good defensively, I am going to use the same logic that kept me from over-investing in Chelsea against Newcastle last weekend. Newcastle have a few players who can create a goal from next to nothing and that makes it dangerous to bet on a clean sheet against them.
Manchester United v Arsenal - The big players in this match are all fit including Mathieu Flamini who at least COULD feature after being out for a few weeks. Some peripheral players like Danny Welbeck and Jonny Evans are either out or questionable but I have a hard time seeing these guys being interesting to managers even if they were healthy.
Sunderland v Manchester City - City has quickly found itself hit by injury problems with Kompany still out along with David Silva. Adding to their issues are Nastasic and Fernandinho being doubtful. With Hart still benched that's the entire central spine of the team not playing. The other concern here is whether City decide to rotate their forwards with Sunderland being the opposition. There is no intimation that this is likely but it is worth considering before you dive in on both Aguero and Negredo (who, if they start, are likely to continue their extremely profitable partnership).
Swansea City v Stoke City - Lots of absences for Swansea with Michel Vorm suspended and Michu and Pablo Hernandez both injured. If you want to take a chance on Wilfried Bony against mediocre opposition then I wouldn't blame you but he certainly hasn't been everything that Swansea had hoped when they paid all that money for him in the summer. Nothing fantasy-relevant on the Stoke side.