Late Fitness Check - Week 35

Neal Thurman
Ben Dinnery is back with all of the latest Premier League team and player news ahead of the early kick off at Bournemouth

Arsene Wenger and David Moyes.  What to do with these so-called under-performing managers? The first thing we should do is examine the notion that they are underperforming and then we can decide if they should stay or go.  Let's look quickly at the cases for and against each manager.

David Moyes - I think we're all aware he took over the defending champions/most famous club in the (English-speaking) world.  We are also well aware that he replaced a living legend and perhaps the greatest manager in the modern history of the game (Jose Mourinho may eventually top Sir Alex's records but until he does it as successfully for as long SAF holds the crown in my mind).  There were many things that made Sir Alex so great but the fact that he consistently got exceptional performances from good-but-not-great players mixed in with a few great ones is certainly high on the list.  I've seen statistical analyses that indicate that very few managers provide a demonstrable benefit over and above the talent on the teams they manage.  Sir Alex was one of the rare examples of a manager who had a statistically quantifiable impact on expected wins and losses, and it was a significant impact.  There are very few other managers on that list (incidentally David Moyes was also on the list but with a far smaller but still statistically significant positive impact).  

This brings us to Moyes' situation.  He has been crushed in the media for not being Sir Alex.  The thing is that, other than maybe Mourinho, that manager doesn't exist in the marketplace right now for Manchester United to hire.  Jurgen Klopp is a big name in the rumor mill but it isn't like he's spinning gold from straw at Dortmund.  There's a reason that his players are also consistently in the rumor mill and routinely making their way to Bayern Munich - he has really good players and he's doing what you do with really good   The expectation shouldn't be that a manager like Klopp could take United's decidedly below par squad (for a title contender) and turn it back into a title winner and Champions League title hopeful.  

The real question about Moyes is his effectiveness in the transfer window and there are two things to consider here.  First, that shopping from the top shelf is all pretty new to him.  At Everton he built a reputation for finding diamonds in the rough and forging them into a team that was consistently greater than the sum of it's parts. The high end of the transfer market is another beast altogether whether it be the amount of money paid or the recruiting necessary to convince the best players in the world that they want to live and work in Manchester instead of Barcelona, Madrid, London or Milan.  The other issue is the fact that the manager isn't usually the one who actually makes deals happen.  We'll likely never know who was at fault in United's executive team for deals not going through last summer but as we saw at Arsenal when David Dein left, the manager needs a great dealmaking partner to be successful in the transfer market. 

If I were deciding, I'd give Moyes another season - and hopefully some better executive support in the transfer window - unless there's a managerial candidate out there that just can't miss. 

Moving over to Arsene Wenger, the entire narrative is just incredibly confusing.  Going into the season Arsenal was widely predicted to be somewhere between 4th and 6th depending on what you thought of Spurs summer acquisitions and Manchester United's chances with their new manager.  While fourth is certainly not guaranteed, they were the favorites for that spot even before Everton lost against Palace in mid-week and are very much in control of their own destiny between a narrow lead and a far easier fixture list over the last four weeks.  

There are three things that are behind the "Wenger Out" movement - raised expectations from being in first farther into the season than anyone expected, the embarrassing away losses to Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Everton, and the failure to reinforce the squad in January.  On the first point, beating expectations for as much of the year as Arsenal did should be viewed as a good thing, not a bad thing.  Given that the drop from first to a fight for fourth coincided with a string of devastating injuries to Arsenal's midfield is certainly a mitigating circumstance in my mind.  You could argue that the injury bug happens every year to Arsenal and, at some level, that has to be laid at the feet of the manager and I'll give you that point but I'm not sure what you'd want Wenger, or a successor, to change to rectify that situation.

The failure to buy in January could be a legitimate criticism, or it might not be.  Only club insiders and a few others (agents and executives from other clubs) know what legitimate opportunities to buy Arsenal had available to them.  If there were legitimate opportunities to buy a holding midfielder, attacking midfielder, or forward that would have been a clear upgrade for this season and Wenger passed on the opportunity over a few pounds then his job should rightly be in question.  If the players available were of dubious immediate value (i.e., talented but too young to contribute at the top tier this season) or just outside of the budget available from the Arsenal Board then it's hard to fault Wenger for failing to reinforce.  I've seen it noted that he should have pipped Chelsea for Nemanja Matic and I agree that would have been a great idea but quite how Arsenal would have pulled that off isn't clear given that Matic probably had a preference for his previous club.

Finally, there is the issue of the embarrassing away defeats in the league.  This is probably the one place where supporters and others would be justified in demanding Wenger's head.  It seems clear that he didn't have the players available to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the league on their own grounds.  He consistently left his wing defenders isolated by picking attacking players - we're looking at you Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski - who don't track back to help on defense frequently or well.  You can blame some of it on injuries but the best managers figure out a different approach when they don't have the right players for their preferred approach.  Wenger seemed unable to do this.  Would it have mattered? Hard to say but playing a more conservative style in those matches might at least have saved the club a lot of embarrassment and a significant number of goals against in the event that goal differential is relevant in deciding their final spot in the table.  

In the end, I find myself more torn on whether or not Arsene Wenger should stay or go than I do David Moyes (surprising since Arsenal are likely to finish in the same position as last season while United have dropped significantly and lost out on the Champions League).  The best analogy I can come up with is the Philadelphia Eagles situation with Andy Reid coming out of the 2012 NFL season.  He was a long-serving, very successful coach who was the club's best in the modern era but his voice had grown stale and results had suffered.  The Eagles found an innovative alternative to Reid who turned the club around almost immediately in 2013.  At the same time it should be recognized that Reid, reinvigorated by a new challenge and perhaps seeing some lessons after being let go, also turned things around quickly in his next assignment in Kansas City.  As with Manchester United, the real question is whether that Chip Kelly-like candidate is out there and available for Arsenal to hire as a replacement.  If they can find someone they're confident can be the equivalent of Wenger when he came into the league then they should make the switch with Wenger, hopefully, going out on a positive note with an FA Cup.  If not, then maybe another year of the Wenger regime isn't such a bad thing.

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And now on to all of the team news and how it should impact your thinking in Week 35 of Premier League fantasy:

Aston Villa v Southampton - Not much new injury news here other than Artur Boruc returning to action and forcing those who went in on Paulo Gazzaniga last week to change out their keepers.  Christian Benteke and Jay Rodriguez are significant long-term injuries from a fantasy point of view but that's about it here. 

Cardiff City v Stoke - Not much of note here other unless you're a big Craig Noone fan (and who isn't, really?).  Stoke may be looking strong for a top half finish but it's hard to get too excited about any of their attackers in an away match even if Cardiff City are the opponents.  They'll need more big matches before I can start getting excited about their fantasy prospects. 

Chelsea v Sunderland - Eden Hazard would have been a nice pick this weekend but he will be absent again from the Chelsea line-up but otherwise they are a healthy group (which doesn't make life easy given all of the attacking midfield options Mourinho has at his disposal).  No news of interest from the Sunderland side as they are highly likely to be shut down by the Blues and aren't very attractive from a fantasy point of view even when the task is an easier one. 

Tottenham v Fulham - Spurs injured players are set help out fantasy managers who want to invest in this match-up by staying injured.  Mousa Dembele is back but Roberto Soldado, Erik Lamela, Michael Dawson, Jan Vertonghen, Etienne Capoue, and Kyle Walker are all still out meaning that Kyle Bartley, Younes Kaboul, Vlad Chiriches, and Emmanuel Adebayor are all pretty likely starters.  The important note for Fulham is that Lewis Holtby is ineligible to face the club that owns his rights.  All signs seem to point to a Spurs win even if Felix McGath has Fulham playing better. 

West Ham v Crystal Palace - Changing injury fortunes on both sides with Crystal Palace possibly losing Marouane Chamakh, Joel Ward and Yannick Bolasie to minor injuries (all face late fitness checks and should be considered to be of dubious value as a result).  At the same time, West Ham are getting Kevin Nolan, James Collins and Joey O'Brien back.  Given the managers involved this feels like a nil-nil draw that could end up 1-0 in either direction if the defense falters briefly one way or the other. 

Newcastle v Swansea - Newcastle are getting closer to health with the news that Loic Remy and Mathieu Debuchy "could" be involved.  My read of that news is that given that both had injuries that probably prevented them from doing much cardio work that neither will be ready to start and are most likely to be substitutes this week if they participate at all.   On the Swansea side, Chico Flores is missing due to suspension and Michu faces a fitness test on his ankle.  Givin Newcastle's recent scoring woes Jordi Amat might be a reasonable value play in the Swansea defense replacing Flores. 

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Everton v Man Utd - The "As Phil Jagielka Turns" soap opera continues with the defender having an "outside chance" of playing in the key clash against Manchester United. Based on recent history I think I'd keep John Stones if you have kept the faith through all of Jagielka's false starts at a return and have him at a decent-sized discount. Jonny Evans is the Manchester United mirror of Jagielka and appears no more likely to make his return this weekend despite a month of "maybe this weekend" news releases.  Robin van Persie and Rafael also remains out but United don't have any other important news that fantasy managers should be concerned with.  

Hull City v Arsenal - Arsenal get Mathieu Flamini back for sure and may get Mesut Ozil back as well but honestly, neither are likely in the frame for fantasy managers (Flamini because he's a bad fantasy player and Ozil because his return is far from certain).  Laurent Koscielny and Aaron Ramsey should both be available to resume starting duties with Koscielny returning after an absence and Ramsey being worked back into the line-up from the substitute's bench in mid-week.   Of the returning players, Ramsey is likely the most interesting for fantasy managers because he is likely to start and looked compelling when he entered the match in mid-week. 

Norwich v Liverpool - The important news here is that Daniel Sturridge is likely to miss the match against Luis Suarez's favorite opponents. With many managers having dumped Sturridge for the two-match week this will likely be OK with many.  Jordan Henderson is also out serving his suspension after his rash tackle in the dying minutes of the match against Manchester City.  The two absences likely mean that Raheem Sterling's value is going to go way up as he will be almost assured a start and a more focal point in the defense. 

Man City v West Brom - Manchester City may be without three of their most influential midfielders as David Silva (late fitness check), Jesus Navas (Late Fitness Check) and Yaya Toure (out) are all likely to be absent. West Brom aren't exactly exceptional opponents so it seems highly likley that City will win but they do seem unlikely to be as dominant as you'd want them to be at home to a club just above the relegation zone.