Opening weekend thoughts

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A dissection of Leicester, a few extended thoughts on the other games I watched and some quick surface conclusions from the other matches.

Hull 2-1 Leicester

So the 2016/17 season started. To be quite honest, it felt like being made to eat some soggy cornflakes after dining on michelin star food for the past 12 months. It’s weird but oddly comforting to feel like a Leicester fan again.

The loss was really disappointing, but the game itself didn’t seem to present any crippling issues for Leicester. They outshot Hull by 4, although conceding 14 shots and 5 on target to this Hull side was a little worrying. On the other hand, Colin Trainor noted that Hull completed exactly zero passes in Leicester’s box which makes this result seem a tad out of whack.

Vardy missed two excellent chances and if he can keep getting a diet of oppurtunities like he did his production should be alright this season as well. My main point regarding this game is that I don’t think this lineup is representative of what Ranieri will put out for rest of the year.

Demarai Gray’s inclusion was a surprising one and some of the vulnerablity Leicester showed at the back comes from Marc Albrighton and his good defensive work being absent. Gray is talented and plays much calmer than most 20-year old wingers but gave a rough performance on Saturday. He should tone down the shots from outside the box, and his natural inclination to cut inside also cramped up the spacing for Musa and Vardy to make their runs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Albrighton come back into the fray for the upcoming fixtures.

Andy King should also not be starting for any decent Premier League side. His aimless floating about allowed Hull to sterilize Drinkwater’s influence and also made their own attacks more potent. The lovable Daniel Amartey replaced him and did better, but the Ghanaian also looks a little hesitant at times and probably needs a bit more seasoning. Ranieri subbed off Gray and King, which suggests he saw the same issues and bodes well for Leicester under his stewardship again. I predict Amartey, or more likely Mendy, will be starting next to Drinkwater by September.

Leicester looked a little more fluid with Okazaki on the field – as was the case for all of last year. He doesn’t score but helps massively in transitioning Leicester’s attacks which will be needed even more with Kanté gone. Ranieri faces a bit of a headache here. The extremely unselfish Ahmed Musa looks really lively but it’s between him and Okazaki for the second striker spot and the team has a better balance with the Japanese international playing. There should be minutes for Musa somewhere though and if Leicester want to get daring they could occasionally play a diamond with Musa, Vardy and Mahrez.

Luis Hernandez seems to have assumed the backup CB spot over Marcin Wasilewski. This is good! Wasilewski is bad! The only issue was, Hernandez struggled mightily against his namesake Abel’s pace and tenacity. When Huth or Morgan are out, Leicester are still in a spot of bother. It’d be nice to see the multi-positional Amartey get a chance there, as he used to be a full-time CB. Speaking of Wes Morgan, Leicester’s skipper had his second consecutive poor game after playing a role in both of United’s goals in the Community Shield. This is a little concerning, because he struggled in 14/15 and so far his best performances have come exclusively with N’Golo Kante in front of him. And he’s a year older.

So overall, Leicester were ok on balance in this game. What actually worries me is the short-term schedule. Arsenal visit next week (who Leicester have never beaten) and Anfield (where Leicester haven’t won) awaits 3 weeks later. This makes Leicester’s game against Swansea a little more important. In a vacuum Leicester are probably going to finish mid-table, but if the first 4 games yields a point or so, things could snowball and get messy.

Everton 1-1 Tottenham

I was really optimistic about Everton this season but a game against this Spurs team without Lukaku or new signing Ashley Williams is a tough ask. But they were really, really fun to watch and were unlucky to only have a 1-0 lead at half time before tiring and hanging on for the draw. Their goal came from an unlikely Ross Barkley free kick that no-one got a touch on, but the forward line of Barkley, Deulofeu and Mirallas was interchanging and fluid. And the best part? They pressed a bit and defended! The trio suggested that they were a plausible option for Koeman to use at times and may be employed quite frequently if Lukaku departs.

Koeman went with a back 3 that seemed to flummox Spurs quite a bit. Idrissa Gueye made me wish Leicester had picked him up as a N’Golo replacement, especially given as he was one player that profiled quite similarly to N’Golo with high tackles and interceptions. The formation was quite handy for taking Leighton Baines out of situations where he has to defend and make decisions as well, which always helps some. Replace 19 year old Mason Holgate with Ashley Williams and Everton could get quite the defensive stew cooking, even with the return to a back 4.

It did puzzle me last year that Mirallas just couldn’t get any minutes even though he’s a perfectly fine attacking player. If Koeman can get him to consistently defend like he did against Spurs then he’s a real asset, but this effort from him is unlikely over the course of a season. See Tadic, Dusan for reference of what will happen to Mirallas or probably all of Everton’s attackers at some point this season.

Barkley is a hot and cold player but he was really buzzing against Spurs as he often is on opening day of the season.

Deulofeu was nominated as the central player on the team sheet, but Barkley drifted inside often and managed to get 4 shots off (one of these being the indirect freekick) which is a good start. Averaging 2.5 last season, at the very least Barkley has evolved into someone who can get shots off rather than being a big bundle of talent that doesn’t do any productive things (Wilfried Zaha). Barkley is frustrating, but also seems like a player who might thrive more in a structured attack with specific instructions under Koeman rather than Martinez’ sedated possession game. Put simply, Barkley is a plus-impact player when he’s played as a forward and a hindrance when in midfield. Everton should ride out his performances and see where they go.

Spurs looked mostly fine, after being overwhelmed in the first 20 minutes. Deulofeu got loose for a great one-on-one chance but failed to finish and Spurs gradually shifted into their relentless mode in the second half as their fitness prevailed. Janssen was brought on which gave them a bit more bite against Everton’s formation and allowed Kane to actually get involved in the game a bit, but England’s finest corner taker still failed to take any shots which must be a little concerning for Spurs. It would surprise, but not shock me, to find that Janssen was starting a couple of games over him before Christmas.

The other good thing about Janssen’s introduction was that it split up the Eric Dier-Victor Wanyama midfield that had been plodding slightly. Weirdly, Wanyama was the one to stay on but it did the job in allowing Spurs to push more onto Everton. Of course, this midfield isn’t by design. The suspended Mousa Dembele was as sorely missed as we all predicted, given that he’s one of the best all-round midfielders in the league. While not every team has an attack as fluid and fleet of foot as Everton’s forward line, Spurs will struggle to contain good teams until Dembele returns.

Manchester City 2-1 Sunderland

Pep arrived. The schedule computer spat out a pretty pleasant opener to the season with Sunderland at home, but they made hard work of securing the win. While an early penalty settled the game and suggested a mild rout was in order, the real hubbub was everyone noticing crazy Guardiola stuff all over the field. Only issue was while everyone lost their minds over inverted fullbacks, Sunderland were mounting quite the challenge.

The conclusion seemed pretty inevitable, Sunderland got the goal they deserved but Manchester City grabbed a late-ish winner through poor Paddy McNair. It was pleasing to see Sunderland aren’t going to resemble a bowl of soggy cornflakes until November again. It’s easy to tell that City are going to be good, but those warning that they’ll need time to get up to speed were right. A +9 shot differential seems good but this from Michael Caley suggests City were as average as the eye test suggested:

The Manchester derby in a couple weeks is going to be fascinating but I sense that neither team will be all that polished.

Saturday Miscellaneous

  • Nathan Redmond, who became the darling of the fantasy football community in preseason, was mentioned in the same sentence as Thierry Henry as a winger who can be converted to play up front. He scored Southampton’s equaliser and managed 5 shots. This is exciting.
  • I was massively pessimistic about Swansea, but from the looks of things they had a really positive day at Burnley picking up a 1-0 win and outshooting their opponents by 7 without Gylfi Sigurdsson. It is Burnley though, so I remain unsure about them.
  • West Brom appear to have changed nothing.

Bournemouth 1-3 Manchester United

Mourinho put out a weird lineup, but this is in keeping with much of the league on opening weekend. 0% of managers know or play their best lineup in August, which leads to a couple of weird results at times. Mourinho trotted out an XI that included Rooney and Fellaini, opting to leave Mkhitaryan on the bench. There were some issues, but I imagine that the majority of them would be solved by taking Rooney off and Pogba/Mkhitaryan being involved. The problems were much of what happened under LVG: slow moving of the ball, no sign of a dangerous counter-attack, general lack of shots. One noticeable thing with the lack of shots is Anthony Martial’s play. For someone who carries the ball into great positions as much as Martial does, he averaged just 1.8 shots last year. Perhaps this can be attributed to LVG’s coaching, because against Bournemouth he took 3 from decent positions.

Zlatan managed only two open play shots (both from long range) and this United attack looks like it might create a lot of headers rather than shooting chance. However Zlatan did facilitate for others very well and his passing should become a key weapon in this attack. United’s performance was convincing in most ways apart from how they scored their goals (big defensive mistake, fortunate mis-hit and a slow long-range shot).

It’s inexcusable that Bournemouth still have to start Artur Boruc. He had a part to play in each United goal and my prediction that Bournemouth would finish 10th looks shaky. While Bournemouth’s defence was bad at times, it was more concerning that they couldn’t muster anything going forward aside from their fullback cutting inside and smashing one into the top corner. One to monitor.

Arsenal 3-4 Liverpool

Word count has spiraled wildly out of control, so I’ll keep this last one really fucking brief. I don’t this result – the game itself, not the transfer calamities that surrounds them – was as bad as it seemed for Arsenal.

It was a performance with reserve centre half pairing, with one of their biggest stars missing and the other one played out of position. They still cut through their opponents at times Liverpool had to score 4 phenomenal goals to win, one of which being a 35 yard free kick that is no fault of Arsenal really. They’ll be fine. The only reason it seemed so apocalyptic was the fact it was Arsenal, and Wenger, and that opening day Arsenal losses causes Twitter to just eat itself three times over.

As for Liverpool, I’ll smugly paste in some stuff from my prediction and pat myself on the back all too soon:

 

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Predicting the 16/17 PL Season

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These predictions have mostly been done as a reference point for later in the season. I’m excited for the new season, but there’s a knowing that it won’t be the ‘dreamy clusterfuck’ of last season. At the same time, Leicester should still be fun to watch and fairly good, with Champions League football on the side. There’s the well-documented influx of managerial talent and several big clubs in interesting positions going into 16/17. Spurs and Arsenal coming off failed title challenges? Manchester United and Chelsea looking to work their way back into the top 4? It’s all a bit inverted.

Quick note: some of these predictions will look stupid in a couple of months, but I’d rather move away from the current retreads of opinions. Trying to forecast the new developments is way more entertaining than going with what standard logic would dictate! Also any shot/xG stuff comes from Michael Caley’s 15/16 table which can be found here. And generally any mention of ‘advanced numbers’ refers to stuff I’ve gleaned from other much smarter people.

1st – Manchester City

It’s now been 3 years since we saw a motivated, firing-on-all-cylinders Manchester City squad. That particular phenomenon is easy to forget after two wishy-washy seasons where title challenges failed to sustain and the spring months were spent meandering safely into the top 4, rather than the battling the heat of a title race. They can’t afford to go wandering mentally as they have often done of the last two campaigns. City need to hit the ground running and prove they have that top gear still.

Pep Guardiola’s arrival gives them the edge for me as title winners. It’s not been talked about a lot but City should score bucket-loads of goals and their juggernaut status at the Etihad will be restored. At the height of their powers, a trip to the blue half of Manchester was the hardest of the lot and gave City margin for error on their travels. Guardiola’s going to do crazy Guardiola stuff with this team and the Aguero-De Bruyne axis wasn’t exactly sterile last season. The tools are there for Guardiola to create a possession-holding, shot-creating monster of a team which will destroy lesser outfits and severely test their peers.

Doubts are easy to find as well though, which is what makes this still somewhat of an uncertain pick. This isn’t the polished array of talent Pep had at Bayern. City targeted younger but also riskier prospects in the transfer market with John Stones and Leroy Sane the most notable additions. Their defence will survive often on account of some ridiculous 70% possession rate but Pep won’t get away with stuff like Kolarov at centre back. That shit won’t fly. Aguero probably needs to play 32+ games as well which is no guarantee and City have other injury risks (Gundogan, Kompany) that they’ll need to survive the absence of at times. But the potential that their attacking output has just makes it hard for me to not have them winning the league. I think they’ll be the top scorers in the league and come out on top. But it’ll be close.

2nd – Arsenal

Rory Smith once said something along the lines of “It’s so hard to write about Arsenal. Everything’s already been said.” That was at least 2 years ago and everything is much the same. New striker, central defence, soft mentality etc etc…none of these need extensive detailing. The problem for Arsenal is that their season is essentially going to become relevant in February. We know they’ll be good. Everyone is just waiting to see them redeem past mistakes. You want to be in the title conversation? Don’t get bullied by Marcus Rashford and his friends and don’t lose to Swansea’s reserves.

Those endlessly rehashed issues are often outed as myths and rightly so. The advanced numbers really like Arsenal’s defence and Olivier Giroud. A similar campaign to 15/16 would put them in range of the title without the greatest sporting story (Yes.) getting in the way. Granit Xhaka looks like a good signing who fits well into Arsenal’s scheme and also brings a bit of fire to the team. (I know we often relegate the idea of mentality and such to ‘proper football men’, but Arsenal are soft at times and could do with Xhaka’s prickish-ness. It’s just true.) Ozil is settled as possibly the league’s best creative force and Sanchez, who’s underlying numbers were still great last year and never translated into goals, should rebound even after playing another international tournament. At some point, Arsenal will have a season free of injuries to key contributors.

Unfortunately any progression Arsenal make can only face judgement once 2017 is well underway – unless they implausibly pull away from the rest of the league early on. I see the xG darlings being really good again and good enough to rub shoulders in an actual title race for the first time in ages. It’s just instinctual for me to side with Manchester City over Arsenal when it gets down to the nitty gritty in May.

3rd – Manchester United

This was the one. I really, really, really wanted to go balls out and pick United to miss the top 4. My body was willing me to make it so. But, man, Mourinho. Jose fucking Mourinho. I can’t bet against him that much. If anyone else was at the helm I’d go for it but Mourinho is a man who wins lots of football matches. His presence plus Zlatan and Pogba’s brings a bit of the trepidation back for teams visiting Old Trafford. United have global stars again. Fuck. I’d enjoyed their hiatus.

There are so many reasons I wanted to doubt them. The strains of the Europa League, Zlatan being old (I saw him mask a terrible performance with a goal in the Community Shield firsthand), Rooney being shit. Many factors. I do wonder if Mourinho might just tank Europa League this year, I don’t think the United hierarchy places much importance on it and a swift exit opens the door for a serious knock at the title. Rooney is also definitely getting dropped before Christmas and the press will make a big deal of it even though it should have happened a while ago.

Ultimately, I think Mourinho fashions his typical winning team out of a Schneiderlin-?-Pogba midfield and plenty of athleticism around Zlatan. The battles with Guardiola’s City will be particularly fascinating. The title will be in play for sure. But Mourinho has to fashion an elite attack and after United were 14th in shots last year and 10th in xG, there’s a lot of ground to make up. They should be in the mix, but the meshing that’s required and it being Mourinho’s first season, I see them falling short this time around.

4th – Liverpool

The first big shout! Choosing Liverpool over Chelsea and Spurs – two teams that I see as being really good still – is brave, if I say so myself. While the managerial narrative is one I wanted to avoid, Klopp is easily the biggest factor in my confidence about them. I think Liverpool will be that side that gets absolutely rolling and it’ll seem so obvious that we’ll wonder how we missed them before the season. This is me trying to get ahead of the curve.

Sturridge’s health remains a huge question, but the array of attacking midfielders makes me optimistic for their prospects with or without him. After a full preseason of his tuition, this team is going to be fucking relentless. Mane and Firmino can press, Coutinho’s 13/14 peak came with him tackling and battling in midfield, Lallana is intense and Wijnaldum can get about. Even up front, Origi can do some stuff and Ings can soak up a few minutes. This crew is backed up by Jordan Henderson and an ever-improving Emre Can. Teams will get flustered when Liverpool get in their faces and the attacking talent they possess should see the excellent shot numbers (2nd in total shots and shots on target after Klopp’s arrival) continue.

That number is slightly inflated by Coutinho deciding to pull the trigger from anywhere inside 30 yards but the point remains: Liverpool are going to keep coming at you and at you until you break. The defence is gradually getting there too. While the pressing further up does a lot of the hard work, Lovren gradually improved and Clyne is as solid as solid comes. They’ll need some luck and to ride out Mignolet until they can give Karius his chance, but they also have a clear schedule with no Europa League. I’m all aboard the ‘Liverpool top 4’ train.

5th – Chelsea

I’ll admit, this positioning is mostly a product of me being committed to fitting Liverpool into the top 4. It’s more an indictment of the quality of competition than Chelsea’s own failings. At least 1 good team is missing out on the top 4 this season and probably more than that.

Conte and Kante. If Chelsea can stick to the tried-and-trusted defence+Hazard recipe that has served them well before, there will be no chance of the 15/16 shambles. It’s sounding like Conte’s first priority is to plug the gaps and it helps that they’ve signed the best defensive midfielder in the league. (Yep.) N’Golo Kante is really fucking good. I know that’s not groundbreaking analysis but I hope you can see it means more coming from me. I’m going to miss Kante. Long live his only ever Leicester goal, a scuffed attempt that crept through Heurelho Gomes’ legs.

Diego Costa and Michy Batshuayi seems like a perfectly fine striker rotation, even if Costa goes completely haywire with the new rules regarding on-pitch behaviour. The rest of Chelsea creative force worries me a little and is what led me to take United and Liverpool over them. I’ve never been a Willian guy and Oscar has done nothing over the last 18 months. That’s a lot of responsibility being shifted to a diminutive Belgian who has shown good form and fitness for only the last 3 months. They’ll be a difficult team to face, but I don’t see it all coming together in Conte’s first season.

6th – Spurs

Oh, Spurs. I don’t even mind Spurs. I detested them when they were bearing down on Leicester during March and April, but once Hazard curled that gorgeous equaliser in and pint after pint rained down where I was, the red mist lifted. They were Spurs again.

Nothing in their advanced numbers suggest this is a team that would regress so badly back into that familiar Europa League deadzone we call 6th place. This was the team that had shots flying from all over and were the best pressing team in the league. They’re young which suggests improvement and at the very least, no deterioration of performance. But a few factors and sheer default with 5 other top quality teams has them in 6th.

Firstly, I think they’ll start slowly. Mousa Dembele is irreplaceable. Go find yourself an uber-athletic, ball carrying midfielder that presses and defends the shit out of opposing attacks. You can’t. A Dier-Wanyama tandem to hold the fort will be solid but slightly plodding and Spurs already move the ball quite slowly at times. The other big issue is Kane. Sorry, set-piece maestro Harry Kane. Maybe I’m just a severely scarred England fan, but I don’t see Kane hitting quite the same heights this year. That’s not to say what he did in the last two seasons was flukey, Kane’s really good. I just feel like he’s really looking burnt out and will cool off a bit with Janssen taking some minutes from him as well.

Poor Spurs.

7th – Everton

This pick is provided with the condition that Romelu Lukaku stays with them throughout the season. More and more, I’m starting to think Koeman fits really well with Everton. His ultra-conservative approach was frustrating to witness from a distance when Tadic and Mane were sitting next to each other on the bench, but the results were indisputable.

Swapping out Stones for Williams is probably a net gain for Everton in the 16/17 season as well. Him and Jagielka gives them a solid base with James McCarthy being nasty just in front of them, although Gareth Barry needs to be shelved and exclusively brought out for League Cup outings. Everton were already average in xGA and any improvement there would turn the Toffees into a postively good defensive team.

Weirdly, Koeman may have his work cut out on the other end. Barkley makes for a frustrating watch at times but he posted good shot numbers and Koeman will hopefully stop the nonsense of putting Barkley in midfield which Martinez couldn’t get away from last season. Lukaku is Lukaku, a top 5 PL striker. Koeman needs to create some sort of attacking structure, even if it’s cross+cross+cross. I like the concept of Everton with a real identity and think they’ll surprise many this year.

8th – Southampton

Despite the continued hemorrhaging of players to the North-West and…China, Southampton are still in a good spot. Claude Puel looks likely to jazz things up a bit which will be a nice change of pace aesthetically. Saints also appear to be gambling on some lower-usage attacking players growing into new roles. Shane Long had as good a 15/16 season as he could have had really, but relying on him to be your main striker? I don’t know.

The low-usage gambles continue with Dusan Tadic sticking around to presumably become the focal point of the attack. You saw what Payet did last year when West Ham funneled everything into him, it’s not hard to envinsion something similar with Tadic. And finally, Nathan Redmond gets to play with a real team that isn’t using Cameron Jerome as its starting striker! I’m excited to see how he gets on and if he can really pick up consistent minutes as an out-and-out forward.

The backline looks solid again and Fraser Forster will again have two games this season where he stops 8 ridiculous shots and keeps a clean sheet. In the middle of the park it gets a bit shady and a bit reliant on younger talent. Jordy Clasie might be good, but no one really knows until he plays over 2000 Premier League minutes in a season. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg is an economical pickup that will probably work out because it’s bloody Southampton and everything they touch turns into a good player. While an 8th place finish isn’t really eye-catching, the means with which they get there could be.

9th – Leicester

Hm. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. They could set a record low for points and I could live with it.

Leicester will face certain speed bumps this year. Teams will show them a lot more respect (although many seem to overlook that Leicester dealt with this for more than half of last season and won the title but, hey) especially at the King Power. Mahrez will depart in the New Year for AFCON. Kante is gone and a Drinkwater-King midfield will get shredded by any half-decent team. This puts a lot of onus on Mendy or possibly Amartey, which it’s unlikely they live up to. The defence came to be the foundation of their title-race triumphs but it’s on that end that I think we’ll get exposed more this season.

Vardy’s still here, Mahrez is just about still here and Ahmed Musa is exciting as fuck. Demarai Gray is fine as a part-time impact player. I love Jeff Schlupp. Leicester’s attack should be good once again, with that frightening quintet running at defences in turn. This season and probably the next few are free hits for Ranieri. I love him, Leicester loves him. No matter what any other team does, it just won’t quite be Leicester winning the title. Sorry about that.

10th – Bournemouth

Here’s where it gets fun. Bournemouth were a cute team that I was fond of but thought of as relegation probables until it came to the end of March and they were practically safe. Eddie Howe’s team pop the ball around really nicely and Wilson started out extremely hot before picking up an injury. Benik Afobe was a January addition who looked lively and Bournemouth even turned Josh King into a goalscorer, an understated feat. They can create chances.

Looking at the advanced stuff and there’s reason to be optimistic about their defence too. Bournemouth conceded 59 non-penalty goals last season, a whopping 13 more than their xGA. While there’s a good chance this improves, it might help if they play someone not named Artur Boruc as their starting goalkeeper.

£15M on Jordon Ibe is a gamble and they’ll also have Max Gradel returning to boost their already ample fleet of speedy attackers. Howe seems like a genuinely good manager. For the past half dozen or so seasons there has always been one second-year team that flourishes. Newcastle, Swansea, Southampton, Crystal Palace, Leicester…Bournemouth?

11th – Stoke

This is getting into the 4th year of Mark Hughes’ Stoke reign. What do we have? A super streaky team that is powered by some tempermental wingers and whatever Jon Walters is able to muster up on that particularly day. The defence is pretty unremarkable (15th in xGA) and last season saw some particularly torrid outings where they completely rolled over. Somehow I ended up watching a lot of Gianelli Imbula down the stretch of last season and wasn’t impressed in the slightest, but he’s young and should improve some. Joe Allen, is a low-risk, medium-reward signing that provides some much-needed consistency.

The good thing about Stoke is that once or twice a season they’ll smash a top side because Arnautovic will hit two in from outside the box. It’s that sort of crazy variance in their shots that makes them a bit of an unknown at times, yet it all came out even last season as their xG and xGA pretty much matched what they actually produced. Weird, weird team. Mid-table looks likely again.

12th – West Ham

Bit controversial. West Ham looked scary with Payet and a gang of athletic runners sprinting around him, but their underlying numbers were mediocre. I’m also sceptical about the chances of Payet replicating his set-piece proficiency. Remember Yaya in 13/14? Yeah, like we ever saw that again.

I’m not a fan of Andy Carroll and he’ll get hurt at some point anyway. Their team is super wide open at times as well in the middle of the park, but don’t mention that to the Mark Noble militia. This prediction is nothing against West Ham. Like everyone else, I love Slaven Bilic. But the amount of smart people saying that they outperformed their numbers last year sways me to believe they’ll sink in the bottom half. Making it into the Europa League groups should pose an interesting question regarding their squad depth too.

13th – Crystal Palace

Palace are a little bit like Stoke-ish with their reliance on hot n’ cold wingers. The inclusion of Yohan Cabaye in their team has become something of a headache, with the Frenchman’s defensive contribution approaching that of a nonplussed Fabregas at times. At this point in his career, Cabaye needs two actual midfielders behind him or alongside him, which leads Pardew to drop one of Puncheon, Zaha or Bolasie. It’s certainly a conundrum that wasn’t solved for long stretches of last season and will need a prompt resolution.

Palace also need a striker. Proposed deals for Berahino and Benteke are yet to fully materialise, if either of those were to rock up at Selhurst Park then I’d probably bump their prediction up a spot or two, especially for Berahino. All I know is that the flair of Zaha and Bolasie should not be leading to Connor Wickham getting a measly 1.5 shots a game off. Get Palace a striker or I can’t see past another mediocre season.

14th – Sunderland

It’s good to see Moyes back. Seriously.

Sunderland continue to be the dumpster fire that never dies out, but this time the apocalyptic starts to their past few seasons seems less likely to be repeated. Moyes is steady and knows the league well, unlike predecessors Advocaat, Poyet and Di Canio. Jermaine Defoe does very little but create goals for himself, which is just enough for a lower Premier League side. The potential of Sunderland’s attack starts and finishes with Defoe’s individual output though, which is a bit disheartening.

More rejected centre-halves have been shot through the pipeline from Manchester United right into the Stadium of Light and Moyes is good enough to craft a passable defence from all the big bodies Sunderland have. Maybe it’ll be good enough to not sweat out a relegation battle this time.

15th – Middlesborough

It’s nice to see Middlesborough back in the Premier League, a staple of my childhood. Also Sunderland would be extremely bored with no hint of a rivalry if Boro hadn’t got promoted, so that’s nice too. I like Middlesborough, but I’m a little bit worried too.

They’ve spent some money on names. Victor Valdes, Brad Guzan, Negredo. It all feels a bit…QPR. That’s never a good thing. Negredo is an interesting case. He had one season with Sevilla where he averaged 4.2 shots a game and notched 25 goals, but since then? Mixed. There was a brief but lethal mid-season partnership with Sergio Aguero in 13/14 but shoulder issues plagued him and he doesn’t seem to have re-captured that form since.

Middlesborough should be fine. They have a solid midfield by the looks of things and possessed the best defence in the Championship last season, although this has not always translated well. I want them to be fine. Please don’t be QPR North.

 

16th – Watford

The other candidate for the breakthrough team of the year is Watford, but I just don’t see it. Quique Sanchez Flores formed a sturdy core with good defensive midfielders in Etienne Capoue and Ben Watson that stonewalled the league for a lot of the season, giving up 40.4 xGA which was the 8th best mark in the league. Goals were somewhat of an afterthought in an attack that ran on Troy Deeney, Odion Ighalo and…fumes. But it was a structure, an identity and it worked.

Walter Mazzari has been brought in as the new manager, a self-confessed disciplinarian presiding over a squad which was rumoured to lack discipline. Hm, sounds like a risky mix to me? What really concerns me with Watford is that the amount of teams that have gone from defensive, long-ball philosophies then adapted to something different is very short. If Mazzari wants to implement anything more intricate at Watford, I could see it ending very badly.

17th – West Brom

The demise of Tony Pulis! The rumblings around West Brom with how Pulis operates make me think his departure might be in the works. Even if he sticks around, West Brom only need a couple of injuries and a fruitless run in front of goal for things to get tight. They’re not impassable as a defensive unit and they faced the 3rd most shots in the league last year. As a deep-lying team this is not unusual, but that’s still a high number and runs the risk of a few opponents converting on those chances.

The exiling of Berahino did no good for their attack. West Brom scored the fewest goals in the league last year outside of Aston Villa. If Pulis does depart, some manager is getting rushed in to try and either: keep up Pulis’ defensive structure (unlikely) or turn West Brom into something resembling an average attacking side (also unlikely).

I think they’ll be safe, but they’ll have to work for it.

18th – Burnley

Burnley have rolled it over again with the same economical plan but essentially with Andre Gray swapped in for Danny Ings. I like Gray as the possible breakout striker from the lower half of the table and Burnley’s goals will have to come from somewhere. As much as I dislike Dyche’s endless ‘market leaders’ rhetoric, he’s a pretty good coach and Burnley will make a good fight of it.

I just don’t think their talent is up for the task again. If they had one more creator, I could maybe get on board…but it’s not there. You know what you’re getting with Burnley. They work hard, they’ll never self-destruct and beat themselves. They just probably won’t beat many other teams either.

19th – Swansea

This one really does make me sad. Swansea were the rare team that came up from the Chamionship and succeeded by dominating the ball. They were full of Spaniards and Michu was there and it was just fun. Now? I don’t feel so good. Ashley Williams’ sale was slightly surprising too and leaves more than a hole in their defensive line.

Gylfi Sigurdsson might have to go nuts and grab like 20 goals for Swansea to sniff midtable – which isn’t happening.

Andre Ayew is gone and although Nathan Dyer scored one crucial goal for Leicester, he didn’t do a whole lot else and there’s little chance he can even remotely replace Ayew’s production. Who else is there? I mean, Jefferson Montero is a nice piece but he doesn’t score. Routledge? Llorente is washed up, according to multiple people who’ve watched more Llorente than me. Borja Baston is unproven but will need to hit the ground running or this could get ugly for Swansea.

20th – Hull

Why do I still think Hull pull off some bullshit result over Leicester before slipping to the bottom of the table? I don’t know. It was this fear psychology that allowed me to survive the title race last April. Leicester should smash them, but probably won’t. Hull are a complete mess as many now know with injuries, a poisonous owner situation and no manager. Very Sacramento Kings.

There’s reason to believe that Hull won’t be completely marooned at the bottom. Abel Hernandez is a nice option for a lower Premier League side and Curtis Davies is a solid centreback. If everyone comes back healthy and stays that way, Hull could make a go of it. But envisioning that requires lots of squinting. Toxic clubs hardly ever perform well. Toxic clubs with injury issues and a caretaker manager are…fucked.

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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Leicester hit a Jonathan Moss sized bump and Tottenham subsequently close the gap at the top to 5 points. We know for sure now that Villa are down, but which North-East side is joining them and will Norwich be there to follow them? 5 lessons learnt from a tumultuous Premier League weekend.

Sunderland prolong the relegation battle

The scrap for survival could have been settled this weekend, but Sunderland have given it a new lease of life. Combined with Newcastle’s win the tussling could continue right down to the final weekend. After looking sharp at times against Leicester last weekend, the Black Cats secured their first win in 7 emphatically. It felt a fair victory as Sunderland have clearly improved since their January additions. In comparison, Norwich have sort of been the opposite: scraping wins here and there despite looking just as poor as they have done all season.

Jermaine Defoe, as said before in this space, does very little to help his team win in his overall performances. But the fact of the matter is he gets shots off at a good clip and scores a decent amount of them and he’s probably been a net positive for Sam Allardyce’s side. After hosting Arsenal, they’ll face three iffy defences in Stoke, this weird iteration of Chelsea and Everton. For his price, Defoe looks a nice budget shout in those gameweeks.

Newcastle finally perform

Frankly it feels like Newcastle have won about 3 times all season. The league table tells us this is a lie and that at the Magpies have actually had 7 victories. Their most recent one over Swansea was crucial. Anything other than 3 points would have essentially sent them down but capitalising on a flagging Swansea squad and Sunderland’s win, Newcastle will now have the smallest of chances to escape. The gap to safety is only 3 points (with a game in hand) but it looks all the more gaping when seeing 3 of Newcastle’s final 5 fixtures are against some of the form sides of the division – Manchester City, Liverpool and then Spurs on the final day.

Andros Townsend made his presence felt on the scoresheet for the second time in as many games, which basically constitutes a blazing hot streak of form for a Newcastle player. The defence notched a clean sheet and it was well deserved after limiting Swansea to purely half chances. On the other end 3 goals probably flattered them as a couple of scrappy efforts found their way into the back of the net. All in all, I don’t feel so hot about picking up any Newcastle players, more because of their death row of fixtures than anything else. The overriding feeling is that it’s a shame we didn’t see a well-coached Newcastle team all season rather than their McClaren mess that last far too long.

Rashford an enigma going into next season

What with their cross-town rivals picking up speed again, the Champions League looks well beyond Manchester United now. It’s mostly just van Gaal trying to provide the illusion of competence now or, failing that, the sign that he’s building for the future. One example is his usage of Marcus Rashford, but evaluating the 18 year old’s true impact is difficult.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with Rashford’s performances to the naked eye. He’s quick and his finishes against West Ham in midweek and then Aston Villa looked clinical. The only issue is that he’s been so clinical, that it’s not quite representative of his attacking output. Many people pointed this out over the weekend but in the league Rashford is currently converting 50% of his shots into goals. That is an absurd percentage and clearly unsustainable. So while his price might look tempting next season, it might be best to wait until his finishing rates come back down to Earth.

Manchester City will be a problem next season

Remember how the confirmation of Manuel Pellegrini being replaced by Pep Guardiola threw off the whole Manchester City side? And how De Bruyne got injured around that time too and now he’s back City’s attack is humming again? Funny that. That swoon put them out of the title race and it the killer blow was probably the Leicester game where the winner would go to the top of the table. But Robert Huth and that Mahrez goal happened so now City will have to settle for duking it out with Arsenal to avoid playing a Champions League qualifier.

While Otamendi and Mangala’s developing partnership is promising the potential of City’s attack has returned to the mindblowing level it was at a couple of seasons ago. Although City are understandably not given many opportunities to showcase it they are absolutely lethal on the counter as Aguero’s second goal showed, which included some guy called Samir Nasri! Chelsea a bit of a joke right now but City have done and will do this to a lot of teams next season. Aguero and De Bruyne look like must haves for fantasy teams, regardless of the price.

Spurs are blowing past average teams

Stoke have had a nice season and will be very happy with another top ten finish under the management of Mark Hughes. Marko Arnautovic has been converted from talented headcase to regular contributor and Stoke also possess intriguing players who aren’t quite there yet like Giannelli Imbula. They’ve over-performed a little this year and will struggle to break into the Europa League in the coming seasons, but they’re a nice team who have their moments.

Tottenham ate them alive.

It’s stunning how Spurs have gone from a stale team going forward to this sudden onrush of incisive threat that comes at you for 90 minutes and won’t stop until it is satiated. Just as impressive is Dele Alli fitting into such a quality side in his ‘rookie’ season in the Premier League. Stoke had no shot of stopping them and it’ll take an otherworldly vintage Tony Pulis masterplan to stop them next weekend. If that doesn’t materialise, Spurs will overwhelm them just as they have to a bunch of oblivious midtable clubs.

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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Sunderland and Norwich are scrapping to stay up, the top 4 looks all sealed off by now and then there were two in the title race; Leicester and Spurs. 5 things we learned from the weekend’s matches:

Hammers defence finally exposed

For the early fixture against Arsenal, Slaven Bilic went 3 at the back before switching things up again at half time. It was a clear change of system, but it didn’t look like they had much of a plan to stop this humming Arsenal attack still. The game had a weird pattern, with Arsenal racing into a 2 goal lead before Andy Carroll of all people pegged them back, eventually forcing a draw. Strangely West Ham were actually extremely positive (or risky, one could say) in their play rather than sitting and countering. Unless you’re organised and compact without the ball, which West Ham aren’t, that is not a strategy that will work against Arsenal.

If West Ham want to sustain their league postition for next season, they’ll need to develop something of an identity on the defensive end. Bilic might want to look at making the team press higher and with much more intensity. They have the tools to do so, their centre-halves are fairly quick and the squad has a fair few top-level athletes throughout. If a higher press isn’t implemented then something needs to be altered, because they’ve been riding their luck for much of the season in defence.

Watford show little signs of changing

Quique Sanchez Flores found a recipe he could consistently rely on early in the season: Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo will link up off of scraps for the goals while the rest of the team grafts defensively. It worked really well, although they’ve faded over the course of the season. Ighalo and Deeney are an interesting pair to look at. Deeney does a lot more defensive work and is probably the better overall player, but fantasy points make Ighalo look much better. The Nigerian is helped in this sense by the fact that he never, ever looks to pass the ball so his stats grow while Deeney is left to fume at him.

The Hornets will still need to tinker with a few things over the Summer. One-dimensional approaches will work for a season or so, but eventually teams will figure you out. It gradually happened to Burnley last year; once the opposition took Danny Ings out of the game there was little to worry about. We know that Watford’s strikeforce can do damage, it’ll just be difficult to replicate their output next season in exactly the same manner.

Gylfi Sigurdsson has decided someone’s mini-league somewhere

When Steven Naismith signed for Norwich, I touted him as a possible differential. That didn’t quite come off, but the tradition of one player coming alive for a poorer side and carrying them for a few matches. It was continued by Gylfi Sigurdsson who since 2015 ended has notched 9 goals and 2 assists for a blah Swansea side. In other words, he’s been absolutely on fire.

This run has taken him up in the fantasy rankings to the point where he’s the 7th highest scoring midfielder in the whole league after a slow start. Every midfielder ranked above him is at 14% ownership or higher. Sigurdsson’s ownership? Nearly half that, at 7.9%. In other Swansea news Jefferson Montero, who was tearing it up at the start of the season, has started getting minutes again after a long time out. This is welcome news to Swansea fans, because he’s good, and all neutral football fans, because he’s damn fun to watch.

Liverpool have potential to be a top 4 side

Thanks to a Premier League campaign that frequently found itself stalling combined with their prolonged Europa League involvement has lead to Liverpool playing a few dead-ish rubbers on quiet Sunday afternoon. With Leicester and Spurs vying for the title either side of their game with Stoke, Liverpool didn’t get much publicity for their excellent 4-1 win over Stoke. It doesn’t just look like a small Spring emergence either, Jurgen Klopp’s side might get good really soon. Top 4 kind of good.

The first team – stocked with the likes of Emre Can, Divock Origi and Alberto Moreno – has a lot of players who you know have talent and there’s something there but it hasn’t quite been coming together consistently. Now finally they look like they’re on the verge of becoming bona fide top level contributors. Can in particular is developing into quite the unit in midfield. Everyone is clearly better off when Sturridge is in the team and it’s been key to Liverpool’s little run down the stretch of the season. The England international has evolved from burning teams with his pace on the counter in 13/14 to a more deliberate, creative force up front. If, if, if they can keep him healthy next season, look out for Liverpool.

Martial needs to grow as a striker

A season that started with such a rush has devolved into something much less rewarding for Anthony Martial. Labeled a panic buy when arrived at Manchester United, the Frenchman kicked off his Old Trafford career with a decisive goal against Liverpool. This isn’t such a bad way to announce yourself as a Red Devil. Yet going into the penultimate month of the season, Martial’s goal tally stands at just 8 with 3 assists to go with it. Granted, he’s played as a wide forward for much of the season but there’s clear room for Martial to develop as a goalscorer.

The main issue is he just doesn’t shoot enough. There was a clear example where he worked it well all the way to the Spurs penalty area before allowing a speeding defender to come and intervene. That situation has to generate a shooting oppurtunity, if not for Martial then for someone else. He can glide by players and always looks a threat but that doesn’t materialise often enough into a shot or drawing a foul. Looking ahead to next season, I’m still pessimistic as to the fantasy prospects in United’s squad while they remain under Louis van Gaal’s tutelage. Rashford provided a brief injection of life into the attack but it’s still a real grind for United to score. Set to finish outside the top 4, we’ll watch closely to see if the Dutch boss survives.

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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By the time Spring comes in the Premier League, there’s dead rubbers all over the place and certain teams looking to book holidays. So, focusing on the games that mattered at either end of the table – 5 things we learned from the weekend:

Leicester can rout teams too

No Vardy, no problem. Leonardo Ulloa scored twice in a charged Leicester performance that blew past Swansea and put them eight points clear at the top of the table in April. (Read that sentence again). The very same Leonardo Ulloa who was so awful before Christmas has come back to play a crucial part in the title challenge. Sunday was his best showing yet. Even if Vardy returns from suspension, Ulloa may be in with an outside chance of starting but Ranieri will surely recognise that his best team includes Okazaki and Vardy up front. The Argentine also suffered a minor back injury which could harm his chances.

There were new contributors that made their mark too. Schlupp did begin the season as the starting left back but was an absolute livewire in his first start in 2016. Listed as a defender in fantasy, he’s worth a look in as Leicester’s defence will to keep securing clean sheet after clean sheet. Demarai Gray continues to improve after looking completely out of his depth, his blistering run down the right flank eventually culminating in Leicester’s fourth goal. A game to prove that Leicester aren’t a one man team and a game to prove that they don’t just scrape by in these games.

Riyad Mahrez stepping up in a huge way

It’s been an interesting period for Mahrez and one that’s difficult to fairly evaluate. He’s been having less of the ball, marked much more diligently and then as a result put in a couple of torrid performances. Yet at the same time he managed to concentrate his impact into singular, pivotal events. In that well-documented series of 1-0 wins – Leicester’s impersonation of Euro 2004 Greece – Mahrez came up with two winning goals in games against feisty physical opponents.

If ever there was a time for the return of the gliding, free-flowing and PFA Player of the Year award winning Algerian – it was now. Vardy’s absence meant Leicester couldn’t stretch Swansea across the length of the pitch so easily, requiring more patient building of attacks. Mahrez responded to his increased responsibility resoundingly. Neil Taylor had no chance of covering him and the finish after Ashley Williams’ error was never in doubt. If Vardy’s absence is prolonged, Mahrez showed that he can turn it up when the stakes are highest.

Allardyce has finally made Sunderland defend some

After looking like the softest team since Fulham in their relegation season, Sam Allardyce has managed to drill some defensive resilience into this tepid squad, helped by his January signings. They still look favourites to claim that final spot outside of the bottom 3 as Norwich are floundering and Newcastle’s mini-revival under Rafa Benitez might be coming too late.

Jan Kirchoff has been a steady, if not completely mobile, presence directly in front of that shaky back 4. Just as important, perhaps more so, has been the uptick in general intensity and tempo from Sunderland’s forwards without the ball. Jermaine Defoe still won’t do much, but Wahbi Kazhri’s quality is matched by a tenacity that showed against Arsenal. Fabio Borini’s only virtue is putting himself about a bit. Despite all this, no-one should be too eager to make a late-season play for Sunderland defenders in fantasy.

Spurs will make deep lying teams pay more often than they won’t

In what became a deflating night for Spurs it’d be easy to forget that for 45 minutes this was another blitzing performance from Mauricio Pochettino’s men. West Brom lined up in their typical 9-0-1 formation with faux wingers but it did little to stop the home side from breaking through and creating chances at a high frequency. Boaz Myhill did well to push Harry Kane’s shot onto the post and Christian Eriksen threatened with a long range free kick. When the goal did come it was in ugly fashion but well deserved. One simple set piece forcing Craig Dawson to put into his own net. Alas, this would not be the defender’s last involvement in the match.

Even in the early stages of the second half when West Brom finally made their presence felt, Erik Lamela hit the post after another flowing move. It was a stark reminder of how drastically this team has improved and at the very thing that the team struggled to do for so long. Since Harry Redknapp’s iteration, Spurs haven’t been a team that flowed as such. Now, they’re cutting teams open with a movement and a flair that has led them very nearly to a title. The only issue in the short-term is…

Dele Alli may be missed

Referee Mike Jones missed this little incident but the rest of the viewing masses didn’t. As Spurs held on to their 1-0 lead, the recently named PFA Young Player of the Year concluded another one of his off-ball runs he span on the spot and landed an iffy punch into Claudio Yacob’s midriff. It wasn’t anything to compare to Anthony Joshua but it still didn’t look good on tape. Provocation was unclear but the pair had a previous coming together in the first half.

It seemed set to hang over the events of the night, marring another Spurs win until Dawson did that for them. If Alli is indeed banned, it’s a huge blow for this team which relies on him heavily to make the incisive cuts around Kane. Eriksen is a key cog in the attack but getting in behind isn’t his game at all and Lamela just doesn’t do it as well. Heung-Son Min will likely come into the side – this is by no means the level of drop-off that Leicester experienced going from Vardy to Ulloa – but the loss of Alli, who’s breakthrough season was wholly unprecedented, is one that might just crumple Spurs’ title challenge once and for all.

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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1-0 to the Leicester again, Aston Villa lose in the most depressing match of all time and Payet scored another gorgeous free kick. All becoming rather predictable this Premier League season, isn’t it? Here’s 5 things we learned:

Arsenal breezing past teams without pressure

It’s perhaps a little harsh to give Arsenal backhanded compliments when they dismantled Watford as thoroughly as they did. But if you fail against Swansea and then a severely short-handed United side, criticism will come from all angles. Saturday afternoon saw Arsenal at their very best, it’s just a shame that Arsenal at their very best means them turning over Watford in a quiet game at Vicarage Road. If they win enough games the end of the season might give them another chance to prove themselves under pressure.

In the meantime, buy lots of Arsenal stock right now in the shape of defenders and midfielders. Alexis Sanchez is due so many goals he might explode any second. It’s started already so it might be worth hopping on that bandwagon and seeing if it has any legs on it. Iwobi is the cheap option and his two recent goals will buy him time in the starting lineup, so he isn’t as risky as he might initially seem. Get your Arsenal players now, before the stakes ramp up to something meaningful.

Norwich pull out another crucial win

Well, well, well, here come the Canaries! And Cameron Jerome is nowhere to be found! How surprising. In all seriousness, Norwich are fighting to be better than Newcastle and Sunderland, with the reward being another Premier League season. Safe to say that the quality at the bottom this season seems even lower than usual and that’s without mentioning Aston Villa.

Norwich came out on top in a classic 6 pointer and their triumph left them 4 points clear of Sunderland. They’ve come on strong in the last few games and it’s all a bit out of nowhere. The addition of Stephen Naismith initially looked like it was going to transform Norwich’s attack into something effective but it didn’t transpire quite like that. In this game and their previous win over West Brom there’s been 4 different goalscorers which suggests there’s no really good candidate to transfer in for fantasy and the defence isn’t anything special either. Maybe admire Norwich’s resurgence from afar.

Southampton are crossing the ball way too much

I’ve moaned all season that Ronald Koeman has been playing overly cautious lineups without either Sadio Mane or Dusan Tadic or very occasionally absent of both players. It’s been a bizarre development given the successes the pair had last season but this weekend’s gripe doesn’t revolve around that. (This gripe isn’t much of a gripe at all, because I’m a Leicester City fan so Saints’ inepititude was fine by me.) The issue with Saints is that they cross the ball far, far too much.

It could be argued that Koeman is looking to play to the strengths of his squad, as Southampton do have one of the more imposing squads in the Premier League. The only thing was, it played right into Leicester’s strengths too. Facing Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, two man mountains, how are you going to fire in cross after cross in the hope that it’ll work? Crosses are an inefficient method of attack anyway but they were especially ineffective against Leicester. It’s turned into a nice season for Saints after an uncertain start but their attack could do with some fine tuning.

Tottenham don’t like the taste of their own medicine

There’s a team from the East Midlands that has the ‘unlikely title challenge’ story on lockdown, but we shouldn’t forget how unprecedented it is for Tottenham to be in this position either. Mauricio Pochettino has created another high-intensity, high-pressing team with this Spurs squad that has seen huge improvements at both ends of the field but especially in defence. They possess probably the best defence in the league while their attack is more of a functional affair than a beautiful one, their constant ball pressure being a huge reason they’re scoring more and conceding less.

The pressing that they unleash on everyone is exactly what hurt them in their game at Anfield however. They only mustered up chances off of Liverpool mistakes and the goal was a special piece of work by Harry Kane out of nothing. They consistently struggled to beat Liverpool’s pressing; Eric Dier and Christian Eriksen both excel when given enough time on the ball but the pair were shutdown for long stretches of the match. The attack has always been the less convincing aspect of Spurs this season and if teams want to beat Spurs, then these teams are going to have to go press Spurs.

Mahrez increasingly marginalised as Leicester grind

As is now well known Claudio Ranieri endured a brief yet disastrous time with Greece not long before returning to England. The extent of it: 4 games played resulting in one draw and three losses. It was a far cry from when Greece were at their best in Euro 2004, grinding out three 1-0 wins in the knockout stages to win an unlikely Championship. With his current employers, Ranieri has seen his side take up a similar style. Of course, Greece were far more defensively minded than Leicester but the results of Leicester’s previous 4 wins don’t suggest much difference. 1-0 (The Ulloa game). 1-0. 1-0 (The Okazaki game). Then today: 1-0 (The Morgan game).

There have been consequences however. Riyad Mahrez scored the winner in two of those fixtures but his influence continues to waver as teams load up on him. Southampton started off sacrificing any attacking output on the left by ordering Matt Targett to stick to Mahrez wherever he ventured and it worked. Later in the game when the Algerian did get loose, he wasn’t quite his incandescent self. This cuts both ways. You can either assume that he’s due a good performance or drop him if it seems like a consistent trend that will harm his fantasy performance. I’m leaning towards the latter.

 

 

 

Weekend Review – from fantasybet.com

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Manchester City look to have dropped out of the title race while Spurs maintain Leicester’s pace at the top of the table. In other news, Newcastle and Sunderland are as bad as each other. 5 things we learned:

Everton fully stocked with terrible defensive players

A hefty amount of criticism has been levelled at Roberto Martinez, rightly so, in recent weeks. When a team loses so many comfortable leads, it’s fair to look in the direction of the dugout and enquire as to why it keeps happening time after time. In the early Saturday kickoff Everton decided to be proactive and not give themselves a chance to let another advantage slip, instead conceding two first half goals in a thoroughly awful display. When you’re making Danny Welbeck look like a natural goalscorer, something is seriously wrong in your defence.

Martinez has played his part in their defensive woes yet a quick scan of the Everton team revealed an astonishing amount of bad defensive players. The Spaniard noted the absence of Gareth Barry after the game, but Barry can barely move around the pitch anymore. Muhamed Besic, who did play, is the polar opposite of Barry as he showcased his ‘headless chicken tendencies’ and ended up marking nobody in Arsenal colours. Leighton Baines was never a good defender to start and has had a torrid return from injury while Funes Mori’s goals have masked his deficiencies at actual defending. Baines and Coleman were terrors in fantasy football with their attacking prowess not so long ago, but there’s little point in selecting them when the Toffees are this leaky.

Leicester continue to bounce back from poor performances

Here are Leicester’s past 5 results (W) 1-0 vs Palace, (W) 1-0 vs Newcastle, (W) 1-0 vs Watford, 2-2 vs West Brom, (W) 1-0 vs Norwich. On the surface it looks like a model of consistency. The funny thing is, Leicester’s performances have varied fairly dramatically during this stretch. Against Norwich and Newcastle, Leicester created very little, taking the few chances they had. This weekend against Palace and their win over Watford saw them getting back to a healthy level of attacking, where they could afford to miss a couple of shots. Strangely their best performance by far was against West Brom but they could only come away with a point from that one. Football, eh.

The point is Leicester keep getting results when it looks like their performances are drying up, but then they kick it up a notch in the following game anyway. The defence has been praised as the driving force for the Foxes in recent weeks so there aren’t really any unsung heroes left in Leicester’s team now. Although Vardy’s goalscoring has slowed to a halt, he’s still playing well overall so I wouldn’t abandon him in fantasy. Despite their form, the international break is coming at a good time for Leicester and the likes of Marc Albrighton and Vardy who’ve looked gassed towards the end of games, although the latter will presumably play some minutes for England. Let’s all just hope that no injuries befall any of the squad while they’re away.

West Ham need to kick on for any top 4 push

The Hammers’ campaign to make Pep Guardiola sweat over Manchester City’s Champions League status for next season has been a fun sideshow. Everyone loves watching Dimitri Payet, everyone prefers Slaven Bilic to Sam Allardyce and the Boleyn Ground is generally getting a good send off this season. Happy days, all around! Unfortunately their top 4 push looks set to fizzle out soon unless they can find another gear for the home stretch. They counted themselves unlucky to draw 2-2 at Stamford Bridge courtesy of a contentious penalty, but West Ham are starting to run out of steam a little bit up front.

They found two routes to goal against Chelsea, one was from 25 yards and one came via the foot of Andy Carroll. Both are unsustainable methods, as are the Dimitri Payet free kicks that keep flying in from all over the place. If you find yourself getting desperate trying to make up ground, dropping Payet is one risk worth considering. West Ham are creating less and less as the weeks go by and they’re about to face a few decent teams, including Arsenal and Leicester. Differential season is here, take some risks!

Rafa’s Newcastle are…different.

First things first, Newcastle look marginally better under Rafa Benitez than Steve McClaren and Newcastle fans might readily accept a draw after 6 consecutive losses to their rivals. However, there are a couple of things to remember before we praise Rafa. Firstly, it couldn’t exactly not improve after McClaren. Secondly, Newcastle are still quite clearly a bad team. There’s a very good chance that their new manager will still have to exercise his opt-out clause in the summer. The two games Rafa has overseen have been nationally televised and Newcastle players are notorious for upping their game when Sky Sports come to town. The worst culprit is Moussa Sissoko, having been pining for PSG’s attention ever since he arrived on Tyneside.

The line-up choice from Benitez was alarming and it had predictably questionable results as Sunderland looked far the more decisive and threatening team for long stretches of the game. Playing Shelvey as the main central midfielder in front of an already iffy back 4 was nothing if not gutsy and continue to give Newcastle defenders an extremely wide berth if that’s a tactical decision that persists. Also, Jack Colback playing as a left back will surely not result in anything other than tears for all involved. With the rate their season is going, Newcastle would be happy if they could prolong the battle to the final weekend, let alone hope to stay up. It’s a strange, strange world with Rafa in charge of the Toon.

Demichelis must leave City this summer

Manuel Pellegrini has had a decent run with Manchester City. He’s brought more domestic success, overseen the arrival of younger talents such as Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne and generally maintained the high level of football that the Etihad Stadium is getting used to. It’s not exactly Ferguson-esque but the Chilean has done a solid job at the helm. However Pellegrini’s generosity handing out league starts for Martin Demichelis, of whom he worked with at Malaga, is a mistake that’s happened far too often.

The Argentine was so poor on Sunday afternoon he probably would have made even Everton’s defence worse. The 17 year disparity between him and Marcus Rashford couldn’t have been more evident when the young United attacker breezed away from his counterparts weary legs for the only goal. It could be excused if Demichelis had the defensive nous to handle his own responsibilities but this has proven beyond him also in the past year or so. It isn’t likely that the former Bayern Munich defender is still hanging around in Manchester come September time. Pep Guardiola is not coming to the Premier League to suffer fools.