Neal Thurman

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FPL Draft Preview Week 10

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Premier League Week 9 didn’t turn up much in the way of surprises in the short term.  Watford overcame their recent slump and overcame an in-form Wolves side at the Molineux and Manchester United were at least adequate against Chelsea but neither of these results were particularly shocking.  The lack of massive surprises leaves me looking for a meaty topic for this week’s column so I’m going to focus on something that has been more of a long-term surprise over the opening months of the season rather than a short-term surprise, Arsenal’s rebound in the standings in Unai Emery’s short time on the job.


The narratives associated with Arsenal’s start to the season are pretty well known. 


-          They lost their first two matches to the only elite teams they’ve faced, Manchester City and Chelsea

-          They have won everything since then against a series of mediocre opponents in the Premier League, Europa League, and League Cup

-          They are currently sitting in 4th tied with Chelsea and Spurs on points with Chelsea ahead and Spurs behind on goal differential

-          They are a mere two points off the pace being set by Manchester City and Liverpool who, everyone believes, are vastly superior teams


So, now, the obvious questions.  Are Emery’s Arsenal actually any better than last season or just beating poor competition? Do they have a realistic shot at a Champions League spot? Are they, gasp, title contenders?  What does all of this success mean for the fantasy prospects of Arsenal’s players? You have questions, I have answers.


Are They Better?  

I have seen Twitter posts from pundits that I respect that point in the direction of Arsenal not actually being significantly better than they were last season.  Most of these arguments are statistically-oriented and based on the concept of Expected Goals For and Expected Goals Against.  I am fully in favor of statistical analysis and the insight that it can provide beyond mere cut-and-dried results but I think there is also nuance to be added.


Let’s take the 3-1 win over Leicester City on Monday because it is fresh in our minds.  A purely analytical view of this match would point to the chances the Foxes came close on and the should-have-been-a-penalty on Rob Holding for handling in the box and suggested that this match COULD easily have turned out much differently based on the quality of what the Gunners did on the pitch.  If Vardy puts away a penalty to take the match to 2-0 and Holding is sent off you can easily reach that conclusion. 


What the starkest analytical reasoning fails to account for is just how dire Arsenal were in similar situations last season and, really, over at least the final few seasons, if not more, of Wenger’s reign.  Late-Wenger-era Arsenal were famous for blowing matches that, on paper, they should have won easily.  Any long-suffering Arsenal supporter can recount from memory the cases where their side were bullied by a single rampaging forward or emboldened midfielder from a mid-table side that smelled blood. 


Looking at the first nine matches of the past six seasons and excluding matches against fellow Champions League contenders (City, Liverpool, Spurs, United, and Chelsea) here’s the difficult reading that has disheartened Arsenal supporters from the start of the season:


2017-18: 1-0 @ Stoke City and 2-1 @ Watford

2016-17: 0-0 vs Boro and 0-0 vs Leicester City

2015-16: 0-2 vs West Ham

2014-15: 2-2 @ Everton, 1-1 @ Leicester City, and 2-2 vs Hull City

2013-14: 1-3 vs. Aston Villa and 1-1 @ West Brom

2012-13: 0-0 vs Sunderland, 0-0 @ Stoke City, and 1-0 @ Norwich


That means that IN ADDITION TO any point dropped to their big club rivals, Arsenal have been averaging over four points dropped to inferior opponents in just the first nine matches of the season.  Given their poor record against their theoretical peers, you’re looking at a minimum of 10 points dropped by the conclusion of Week 9.  Throw in the inevitable blow to the confidence of the “same old Arsenal” narrative and seasons were over almost before they began in many cases. 


At a very minimum, you don’t have to be wearing Arsenal Red-colored glasses to see that the ruthless way that they’ve dispatched lesser opposition thus far has been a marked improvement even if that has sometime been achieved through a combination of good luck and a weak schedule.  Recent editions of this club found ways to give away favorable runs of matches and good luck so just doing what a big club should do represents a step forward.  


All of this against a backdrop of circumstances that would have crippled the club in past seasons.  Their starting goalkeeper has missed time.  Their best center back, on paper at least, has missed the entire season so far.  His replacement has missed some time as well.  They have been down to their third choice left back in multiple matches.  There is a depth and a seeming confidence in the “next man up” that is certainly not something you would have associated with even the best of Arsene Wenger’s sides. 


So, Are They Top Four Contenders?

This is where I start to have time for the xG concerns that would lead you to believe that the Gunners aren’t REALLY as much better than last season as their record and winning streak would have you believe.  The underlying statistics would lead you to believe that Arsenal aren’t as good as City, Liverpool, Chelsea, or the Spurs of last season despite their proximity to all of the above in the table.


The key to Arsenal’s Champions League quest is the “…of last season…” that you have to put in that analysis to create clear daylight between Arsenal and the North London rivals who have surpassed them in recent seasons.  We keep expecting Spurs to return to being the side that we’ve seen over the past few years because the names are largely the same.  That said, we’re far enough into the season that there’s reasonable evidence that the combination of a small squad and the depth that many key players played into the World Cup could mean that this isn’t last season’s side.


Spurs have done an admirable job of grinding out results while they are at less than their best and have remained at parity with Arsenal and Chelsea despite injuries and under-performing players.  That said, there’s also no statement win that makes their case for fourth any more clear than Arsenal’s.  Earlier in the season, before we realized how poor Manchester United were going to be, we credited Spurs with a massive 3-0 win.  What no one appears to have done is gone back and revise the value of that win in the context of the rest of United’s season.  Devaluing that win leaves Spurs with no quality wins, a loss to Liverpool in their only “top five” clash, and a loss to a good-but-not-great Watford side that Arsenal has beaten. 


None of this is to say that Arsenal are clearly better than Spurs or that their chances of pipping their rivals to fourth are better than even.  What it is meant to say is that the actual evidence we have to evaluate so far would lead us to believe that Arsenal are legitimate contenders, not favorites but contenders, for a top four spot.  That’s a significant improvement on how we entered the campaign when they were largely expected to finish sixth behind both Spurs and Manchester United.


Do They Have a Shot at The Title?

Given that Leicester City has won a title recently, you could never say “no” outright to this but the depth and talent at Manchester City and Liverpool would lead you to believe that even contending into the second half of the season is probably a bridge too far. 


Picking up every point available against the clubs outside of the Big Six would net the Gunners 84 points.  We know that isn’t going to happen but it gives you a sense of the most that can be accomplished without actually beating a Champions League rival.  If we posit that Manchester United are really a mid-table club posing as a big club this season then we can add another six points getting the Gunners to a potential 90.  Even that near-impossible scenario would leave them 10 points shy of City’s pace of last season. 


There are a lot of things to like about what the Gunners have achieved in Unai Emery’s brief time in charge but until they start picking up points against City, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Spurs then there’s not much point in discussing a title challenge.  I’m OK writing off the opening two matches of the season as part of the club’s growing pains under a new manager but there’s still no positive evidence that these points are going to arrive.


So, What Does It All Mean for Fantasy?

Oddly, while my estimation of the Gunners has gone up since the start of the season, my estimation of their fantasy value has gone down.  The hope was always that Unai Emery was going to be more tactically flexible than Arsene Wenger was and that has proven true.  Unfortunately, for fantasy managers at least, it has meant markedly less predictable line-ups.  Here are some quick thoughts on Arsenal’s significant fantasy players and their current prospects:

-          Petr Cech – He started out the season well enough after the first two matches and was playing well when he got hurt but Bernd Leno has been even better since coming in.  It is going to be hard to give Cech his spot back so keeping him or even using a squad spot on him seems like a poor use of resources until we see him back.

-          Bernd Leno – What we don’t know is how Emery feels about players losing their spots due to an injury.  Leno seems like the better of two good choices from the outside but Cech’s tenure and reputation could mean Emery gives him his spot back putting Leno’s value into at least some question.

-          Hector Bellerin – The emergence of Lucas Torriera has given the wide backs even more freedom to run forward.  Bellerin has lost no time in the Premier League to Lichsteiner and has started piling up the assists.  He’s not at Mendy’s level but his value is rising after a couple of down seasons.

-          Nacho Monreal – We covered Sead Kolasinac’s return to health last week.  Neither were available this past weekend so we’re still not sure who gets the minutes when both the Spaniard and Kolasinac are healthy.

-          Aaron Ramsey – The emergence of Mesut Ozil in Ramsey’s favored spot and the stalled contract negotiations (but mostly Ozil’s performances) have Ramsey’s minutes on the wane.

-          Alex Iwobi – He’s getting minutes but not doing a great deal of fantasy value with them yet.  You have to assume that Aubameyang will start more often than Iwobi as well.

-          Henrikh Mkhitaryan – I was bullish going into the season but he’s been disappointing and feels more like a reserve who starts occasionally than a starter at this point.

-          Mesut Ozil – With Mkhitaryan struggling and Ramsey’s long-term future in doubt, Ozil has taken the opportunity presented to him.  He’ll likely have a few clunkers but if he continues to play the “10” then his stock should stay high for the balance of the season.

-          Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Coming off the bench will catch up to him eventually but it is great news for his owners that he’s proven valuable for fantasy purposes in either a starting or reserve role. 

-          Alexandre Lacazette Unai Emery took a while to figure out how his pieces fit but he seems to have settled on Aubameyang as a wide attacker with Lacazette the man in the middle.   Lacazette feels like he’ll always be just a touch below the elite level but a 15-goal season seems very reasonable.

Ultimately, the common theme here is that Arsenal have a depth that they haven’t had in years and a manager who is unafraid to mix and match his squad to take advantage of that fact.  For me, Bellerin, Ozil, Aubameyang, and Lacazette are the only players who are locks to be in someone’s squad.  If a goalkeeper or left back emerges as a sure-fire starter then you can add them to the list.  Otherwise, I’d consider the rest of the side a poor man’s Manchester City with the promise of fewer goals meaning that the risk of rotation makes them poor bets.


Waiver Wire Thoughts

As has become customary in this column, here are a few unexpected (and likely available) names who killed it in Week 9 and you may be considering adding on waivers:

  • Anthony Martial – He did it again with a brace and he’s still largely available due to his difficult relationship with Jose Mourinho.  On the back of that performance Mourinho would find it difficult to sit him so expect another start which makes Martial a priority short-term waiver claim.
  • Fernandinho – You should always stop and consider then, this late in a season, a player has a week where he picks up nearly half of his season total in one big week.  City are good enough that any player that gets a start could have a massive week but there’s no evidence that the Brazilian holding midfielder is going to do it again.
  • Bobby Reid – Reid has legitimate potential.  That said, I suspect the fact he was playing against Fulham had more to do with his outburst than him taking a massive leap forward.  I’d suggest prioritizing someone from Bournemouth’s squad (playing at Craven Cottage this coming weekend) over a claim for Reid.
  • Erik Lamela – He’s fooled us before since his breakout season but with Dele Alli likely out for one or two more matches he’s worth a claim.  The only downside is that Spurs face Manchester City on Monday and, as we mentioned, Spurs haven’t shown any evidence of beating a big side yet this season.
  • Abdoulaye Doucoure/Etienne Capoue – The Watford midfielders both had big matches against high-flying Wolves on Saturday.  We know Doucoure has it in him to be a fringe starter while Capoue tends to pop up with offensive contributions only occasionally.  If you’re choosing, I’d go with Doucoure as more likely to be more consistent.


If I didn’t cover a player or trend you’re interested in knowing about, you can always find me on Twitter @nealjthurman and ask or put the question to the entire Rotoworld Premier League team @Rotoworld_PL.

Neal Thurman manages the Rotoworld's Premier League coverage and contributes to Never Manage Alone which he co-founded. He is also a diehard Arsenal supporter. You can find him on Twitter @NealJThurman.
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