And we’re back! The way the weekend unfolded, it’s almost like the Premier League never left us. Arsenal were without a few key players and fell behind early. Liverpool’s attack was a joy to watch but the defense nearly cost them the match. Everton were just a touch off the pace needed to contend for a Champions League spot. Manchester City weren’t imperious but certainly showed the class of their squad. And Manchester United, oh Manchester United, the manager’s CV is much more impressive this time around but they just weren’t talented enough.
As with any Premier League weekend there were incredible highlights – backheels from Dusan Tadic and Eden Dzeko come to mind – and some lowlights as well (Shane Long missing an open net header that could have given the Saints a point on his debut and missed penalties from Mark Noble and Charlie Austin). There were injury disappointments to key players in the form of Ross Barkley (out for upwards of five months) and Robert Snodgrass (reports suggest an ACL tear). The newly promoted teams, at least the ones that have played so far, did themselves credit with Leicester City getting a point from Everton while QPR should have had one of their own had Charlie Austin not missed a spot kick.
There is still one more match to be played and I’ll be back to update the column with the results of Chelsea and Burnley but for now, here is the weekend that was in the Premier League.
The Title Race - where we discuss how the aspirants for the title and the four Champions League spots are doing against those two goals.
Chelsea – While they wait to play their first match of the season tomorrow they have to be happy at the (very) early returns from their fellow title contenders. .
Manchester City – They were the best of the title contenders who have played so far but that is damning them by faint praise. Depending on how you feel about the men in sky blue you could either look at it as a dominant performance where they were unlucky not to get a second goal until the very end. You could look at it as a team still waiting for some key players to round back into form before they are at full strength. Finally, you could look at it as a close call against a mediocre opponent who are still learning each others’ names.
Liverpool – You’d be tempted to say “same old Liverpool” if you heard the result (2-1) and the match unfolded (Southampton had a fantastic chance to equalize in the late going) but there is certainly more to it than that. The positive was the Suarez-like performance (minus the biting) from Raheem Sterling. He seems like he might be ready to step up another notch to fill in some of the production lost when the Uruguayan left for Spain. The negative was that despite the presence of two new defenders (Dejan Lovern and Javier Manquillo) and the inclusion of an actual holding midfielder (Lucas Leiva), the defense was still as leaky as it was last season. Alberto Moreno is still on his way and we don’t want to overreact to the first match but it’s hard to say that Liverpool looked improved. Treading water, maybe (and that would be an impressive accomplishment given the loss of Suarez) but certainly not improved. At least United looked bad which should make them feel better about retaining a place in the top four.
Arsenal – Another outcome that you could take in multiple ways depending on what story you’re trying to tell. There’s no way to sugar coat the fact that it was an ugly win. What you make of that win is up to you. The Arsenal apologist will focus on the fact that they won against exactly the type of big, physical team (Tony Pulis or no Tony Pulis) that usually gives them fits. You’ll further make yourself feel better by telling yourself that they did it without Ozil, Mertesacker, and Walcott and with Giroud still not ready to play more than a sub role. If you want to focus on the negative then you’re going to hit the “ugly” theme and the fact that there could easily been an offside call on one or maybe even both of the Arsenal goals. Either path you choose there’s no denying that this wasn’t a display that screams “title contender”.
Manchester United – I’m pretty sure I mentioned in the pre-season edition of this column that it is only the rare manager that makes a statistically significant impact on his team. If you’re not a fan of statistical analysis and you feel the need for visceral evidence to back up something that numbers tell you is true, there it was. United stunk. Louis Van Gaal has far stronger credentials than David Moyes but without players – due to lack of transfer effectiveness as well as a lot of injuries – LVG isn’t going to make the difference. Things will undoubtedly get better when Luke Shaw, Robin van Persie and Johnny Evans get back and LVG is convinced that Adnan Januzaj is fit enough to start but even with those players starting this feels like a team that will be fighting Everton and Spurs for the five through seven spots rather than one that will challenge Arsenal and Liverpool at the bottom of the top five.
Tottenham Hotspur – You can take the Arsenal and Liverpool write-ups, mash them up and insert Spurs as the name of the club in question. It was ugly and they didn’t really deserve the win after conceding a penalty early and not showing the sort of attacking improvement that everyone will be hoping for with a shiny new manager at the helm and Erik Lamela supposedly ready to live up to last summer’s transfer fee. Still, they won and that can’t help but establish some positive momentum as they try to come together under Pochettino
Everton – One of the reasons that Everton did so well last season was that they didn’t drop many points to teams that finished well below them in the final standings. They played a lot of close matches and their record in those matches looked like the record of a Jose Mourinho team (they won about twice as many as they lost). With Mourinho we have come to realize that his teams can sustain that sort of pace in close matches. The jury is still out on Roberto Martinez and his ability to sustain that sort of record in close matches. Losing Ross Barkley for upwards of five months heaps more bad news on what was a hugely disappointing day for the Toffees coming off a summer where they did exceptionally well in the transfer window by securing Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry on a permanent basis. Looking at Everton alone, you could make the excuse that they were missing key players in the form of Barkley who missed out and Coleman and Mirallas who were only healthy enough to be subs. The fault in that line of reasoning is that the same was true of almost all of the clubs ahead of Everton on this list and with the exception of Manchester United, they all came through (yes, I’m making the giant leap of an assumption that Chelsea will beat Burnley later today). Given that a major improvement from Barkley into a featured performer was Everton’s biggest hope to take a step forward this season Week 1 was about as bad as it could be for Roberto Martinez’s men.
The Relegation Zone - where we examine events at the other end of the table as established clubs flounder and newly promoted clubs reveal who they are going to be this season.
Aston Villa repeated their surprisingly strong Week 1 performance from last season and gave hope to the notion that a Paul Lambert/Roy Keane combination might be able to keep Villa out of a relegation dog fight.
Crystal Palace looked like they would continue to be a tough team to break down even without Tony Pulis but a lot will depend on who they bring in as a replacement and how much that new manager tries to diverge from Pulis’ hardnosed style. Palace have the personnel to play that style and sticking to it will be critical to their survival.
West Brom/Sunderland – Of the two teams in this match, West Brom should probably be exiting the match feeling better about themselves. Sunderland fielded most of their first choice eleven and had to rely on a (very rare) goal from Lee Catermole for their point while West Brom will eventually field an almost entirely new defense – Gareth McAuley, Joleon Lescott, and Cristian Gamboa were all out – and they got two goals from a rising star (Saido Berahino) who could help fill the long-standing gap as a featured goal-scorer. It’s too early to read too much into it but there were some very encouraging signs if you were a Baggies supporter.
The Newly Promoted – Only two of the three have played but both acquitted themselves well and looked very much like they will be in the race to stay up. Leicester City were particularly effective taking a point off of a team predicted to be competing for Europa Cup spots. Hard to imagine Burnley will keep this theme going but given the opposition you can’t really judge them for it.
Newcomer of the Year - where we track the progress of players new to the Premier League this season
We’re still waiting to see how many of Chelsea’s new signings get starts today and how they do but we do have some early returns from at least some of the Premier League’s new arrivals both in reality and in fantasy. Before we get to the performances, here’s a list of the guys who weren’t ready to play yet – Ideye Brown, Siem De Jong, Cristian Gamboa, Diego Poyet, and Joleon Lescott:
Dusan Tadic – Tadic was everything we could have hoped for in his first weekend on the pitch. His back heel to set up Nathaniel Clyne was fantastic and he was dangerous all afternoon. He was subbed out with plenty of time left so we’ll have to watch that but an extremely encouraging debut for a player who will get every opportunity to be the creative lynchpin of the Southampton side. The downside is that his stats really didn't translate that well into fantasy with only 5 points in the Yahoo game.
Graziano Pelle – He definitely got some chances but couldn’t cash them in and ended up with a big ol’ zero in the Yahoo format.
Alexis Sanchez – He was OK both to the naked eye and in fantasy (9 points in Yahoo including an assist) but the assist is a little bit of a concern. You’d like to see a premium attacking player who gets an assist go into double figures with phantom points added in. Too early to be negative but definitely a concern.
Remy Cabella – A modest fantasy showing with 7 points in the Yahoo format but he clearly showed his skills against a very good opponent. Look for him to do better against the less physically imposing midfields in the league (and that’s almost all of them).
Daryl Janmaat – Jeremy was down on him on Twitter just before the season started on the theory that Dirk Kuyt beat him out at right back for Holland this summer. His Week 1 performance (and -2 fantasy output) gave credence to that line of thought. On the other hand, Jeremy’s mooted replacement, Glen Johnson, was equally poor for Liverpool.
Enner Valencia – Not really ready and he only saw a few minutes as a substitute.
Bojan Krkic – I didn’t get to see this match so all I have to go on is the statistics but it was hardly a scintillating debut for the Potters’ debutante with two points in the Yahoo format.
Jack Rodwell – He made it well into the second half which is a positive given his injury history and he was perfectly adequate from a fantasy point of view with 7 points in the Yahoo format. For those keeping him at 1.00 on the bench, that’s great news.
Gylfi Sigurdsson – It’s like he never left Swansea – great debut match in an unexpected win at Old Trafford.
Erik Lamela – He looked livelier to the naked eye than he did in his limited opportunities last season but it certainly didn’t show up anywhere in fantasy.
Eric Dier – Doesn’t get much better than a winning goal and a clean sheet in your debut. The only question is whether Jan Vertonghen will supplant the youngster in the longer term.
Andrew Robertson – Hull City’s new left back had a nice debut with a clean sheet and enough phantom points to get him to 14 total in the Yahoo game. Nice work from the Scotland international who was playing in the Scottish Third Division just two seasons ago.
Leicester City – Leonardo Ulloa was the only standout from the starting line-up despite the club scoring twice over the weekend. No one else went higher than 6 fantasy points in the Yahoo format.
QPR – There were a lot of phantom points here with Loic Remy going for 15 and Joey Barton getting 9 to lead a solid fantasy performance despite the club not scoring in their return to the Premier League. Charlie Austin was even positive (barely) despite missing a penalty.
The Joel Ward All-Stars - With a tip of the hat to Bill Simmons who creates an all-star team for any and everything in his columns (the Diane Lane All-stars anyone? about a third of the way down) we will recognize players who are performing in the more subtle fantasy statistics like tackles made and passes intercepted which made Joel Ward a household name last season (at least in households with fantasy Premier League managers in them).
Yahoo’s new interface has made tracking this a little more difficult since we can’t just sort on a single statistic. Fortunately this is the first week of the season and looking down the top scorer list for some names that didn’t get goals or assists makes it easy to guess who might have done well in the “phantom” defending categories. With apologies to anyone who I might have missed as I combed through the results, here are this week’s Joel Ward All-Stars:
Mile Jedinak – One block, five passes intercepted and six tackles – he did it all season last season and he’s back again to start off this season.
Gael Clichy – Not a name you’d associate with defensive steadfastness but he managed four passes intercepted and eight tackles playing out of position on the right of the City defense.
Patrick Van Aanholt – Another surprise entrant to the Week 1 All-Stars, Van Aanholt managed eight interceptions to go with two tackles in his debut.
Phil Jones – United’s defense wasn’t very good but Jones intercepted four passes and made four tackles – now if only he could have blocked one of those two goals things wouldn’t look so bleak at Old Trafford this morning.
James Chester – I knew he had an active day even before diving into the stats with his goal and penalty conceded but he added three blocks, three interceptions and two tackles to an all-field performance.
The Fake Narrative of the Week - It is impossible to go a week without encountering a narrative somewhere in the football media that appears to be totally made up for the sake of gaining attention. They usually fall into the categories of made up transfer rumors, hanging on too long to a mental image of who a player was and not who he currently is, or preying on a long-held stereotype based on club, nationality, or position. When I come across them, I'll let you know and then let you know why I think they're silly.
Manchester City’s second team could be a top club. Pundits seem to want to have it both ways with Manchester City’s reserves. When they’re praising the strength of the City squad they say things like City’s reserves at each position could make up a top six Premier League team. In the next breath, they discount Arsenal beating something other than City’s preferred starting eleven in the Community Shield because they didn’t have their best players on the pitch. Which is it boys? Either beating City’s reserves soundly IS a solid accomplishment or their reserves aren’t THAT good. Today, because they beat Newcastle 2-0 with a team heavily sprinkled with reserves the answer is that they ARE that good. Last weekend when they lost 3-0 to Arsenal, not so much. I'm all in favor of respecting the fact that City have better and deeper reserves than just about anyone in the world but let's be consistent when we're talking about their quality. My personal take is that they're pretty good but in total they're likely a mid-table group.
Sponsor I'd Like To See - As you can see from the lack of sponsorship for this column or this page, there's room for some additional corporate involvement here at the Rotoworld.com Premier League page. In a blatant attempt to solicit any sponsors who may be reading, I'm going to start suggesting some sponsors who might want to call the nice people at NBC Sports to find out what it would take to become part of the team.
Sirius/XM - Sadly, Coke Zero failed to immediately jump on board in response to my pre-season suggestion that they would be a great sponsor to align themselves with early-rising Premier League fans looking for their caffeine fix as they tune in to the early kick-offs. This weekend, after listing to significant portions of the Premier League’s opening weekend on the radio traveling back and forth to Philadelphia, I’m looking for Sirius/XM to jump on the @Rotoworld_PL sponsorship bandwagon. With fantasy managers (in the US-only) wanting to stay up-to-date with as many teams as possible, that Sirius FC offers a live match at each timeslot when a match is available it is invaluable when you aren’t able to tune in to our good friends at NBC/NBC Sports Network. What better outlet than Rotoworld.com to find that audience of sports-addicted Premier League fans who may not know that your service offers a ton of live matches for a very reasonable monthly subscription fee?
Random Closing Thoughts - Well, this one's pretty obvious and it will be how we close out the column each week at least until a better idea comes along.
My Second Club – I mentioned this last week and Southampton have rocketed to the top of my personal “potential good story” charts. If Dusan Tadic keeps playing like that then they are going to make it two seasons in a row as my second favorite team. Leicester City threw their hat in the ring as well but I want to see more of them before I get too carried away. Finally, I'll be pulling for Crystal Palace both because I enjoyed my Selhurst Park experience when I was there and because everyone is writing them off with Pulis (see below) gone.
The Real Genius of Tony Pulis – He left them wanting more. His run after taking over at Palace last November was exceptional and that’s the impression that everyone has of Tony Pulis as he goes back out on the managerial free agent market. We have years of evidence from his time at Stoke that he’s not quite THAT good but that he can be effective in the mid-table range so long as you don’t mind spending a bunch of money and not producing very entertaining football. He’ll get a contract that he doesn’t deserve next time around because of how he managed this off-season.
Edward Woodward or the Glazers? – It appears that there is money falling off of trees at Old Trafford but United can’t seem to attract top caliber transfers. There appear to be three likely reasons for this: 1) Ed Woodward is bad at his job (this has been widely and frequently speculated on by people who likely have no idea); 2) The Glazers don’t want to spend the massive piles of cash coming in (again, hard to know); or 3) Manchester United aren’t used to making top tier purchases. No one talks much about this last part but when was the last time that Manchester United went hard after and ultimately signed a player at the top of his game when the competition was likely Real Madrid, Barca, Bayern or one of the other big money teams out there? They acquired Rooney and Ronaldo when they were young. Their other big stars – Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, etc. – were homegrown. Robin van Persie was fading and past his prime. Juan Mata was on Chelsea’s scrap heap. Rio Ferdinand was probably the last really big signing that United made at the top of the market. Their genius under Sir Alex Ferguson was that they bought from the second and third tier (Ashley Young, Michael Carrick) or they bought so early (DDG, the Da Silvas, Januzaj, Pogba, Chicharito) that they didn’t have to engage the top end of the market and Sir Alex was good enough to make that work. The choices for United seem to be to pay significantly over the odds to attract players or find another manager as good at molding second tier players into a winning team. Sounds like time to get out the checkbook.
The Outliers – Please don’t get overly excited about the fantasy prospects of the following players: Seb Larsson, Steven Naismith, Andreas Weimann, and Ki-Sung-Yueng. Goals have a funny way of making fantasy performances look exceptional but minus what were rare goals for that group, they really didn’t do much else.
Great having the Premier League back, isn’t it?