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The End of the Season

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Manchester City are the first club to repeat as PL Champions in a decade

English football fans certainly got their money’s worth this season, with a title race that kept both supporters and neutrals on the edge of their seat.  Fans of lower league clubs also got some thrills as latent giants are finally challenging to climb back into the top flight.  All of this under the shadow of Financial Fair Play regulations with teeth… and of course, Brexit.

Here is my take on the 2018-2019 Premier League season.

WINNERS

Manchester City

Would they, or wouldn’t they? The writing was on the wall when Manchester City beat Liverpool at the Etihad in the new year.  The first team to successfully defend its crown since the last Manchester dynasty, Pep Guardiola’s side ended their season as worthy champions in a title race for the ages.  They did it by accumulating 198 points over two campaigns, scoring 201 league goals in the process… while only letting in 50 (Arsenal let in more in the last ten months, and they finished fifth).

Despite losing a crazy Champions League tie to scrappy Tottenham, Citeh may still win a domestic treble by beating Watford next week in the FA Cup.  If so, they will have done it with basically two full sides, almost all of whom would fit in at any other European elite team.  That includes the ever-present Sergio Agüero, Raheem Sterling and, eventually, Leroy Sané.

The off-season will be busy.  Talismanic but injury-prone captain Vincent Kompany may or may not sign a one-year deal at 33 years old. Former record signing Elaquim Mangala has a one-year contract extension after a big knee injury.  Six other players also have one year left on their contract.  Fernandinho, David Silva, Delph, and Gündogan have played key parts in City’s success this year as the heart of Pep’s midfield, but none of them could be considered youngsters.  It will be interesting to see how much Emirati oil money gets splashed around this summer, to help City finally lift Big Ears in Istanbul in 2020.

Liverpool

It has been exhausting being a Liverpool fan this season, exhilarating yet bittersweet as Jürgen Klopp built on past campaigns to refine his Heavy Metal Football.  A 22-point improvement meant the Reds finished with 97 points… and still came up short.  In a season of inches, it was a bumpy two months at the start of 2019 that undid Liverpool: a close loss away to City, followed by an FA Cup loss against a productive Wolves side, and then four draws in eight matches.  Come March, a potential 10-point margin at the top had evaporated into nothing.

And yet… there is a feeling of crackling energy under the skin at this club.  Liverpool were perfect against the bottom half, and despite their image of a calmer, more disciplined team, they actually scored four more league goals this season while practically shutting the door at the back. Pundits pooh-pooh Mohamed Salah for “only” scoring 22 goals which, alongside teammate Sadio Mané, and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, was good enough to win the league’s Golden Boot.

A monumental comeback against a European giant means that Liverpool may finish what they could not 12 months ago.   And there is almost no indication this side — so complete with the addition of Golden Glove winner Alisson, and Premier League and PFA Player’s Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk — will be any less formidable come August.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

The last five winners of the Championship have managed to hold onto their Premier League status, but none have done so with Wolves’ panache.  Maybe panache is not the word; perhaps “authority”.  This club was 13th in offence, but had the fifth-best defence in the league.  A Midlands side with a Portuguese heart, Nuno Espirito Santo kept his side organized enough to beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal AND Manchester United, and held Manchester City to a draw at the Molineux.  Only Liverpool did the double on Wolves, and even then, Wolves gave them an early shove out of the FA Cup.

Benfica loanee Raul Jimenez is set to sign a permanent contract after a 17-goal season, and the Portuguese contingent (there are eight of them on this team, four of whom have been capped in the past year) have had no problem with life in England.  Wolves achieved the highest finish in the league table for a newly-promoted side since Ipswich Town got to fifth in 2001.  While this may surprise some, many pundits seem to forget that Wolves are a big club (one of the original 12) with big pockets.  They seem to be in the vanguard of the return of some classic clubs, with Sheffield United already up, and Leeds, West Brom, Villa and Derby fighting it out in the playoffs.  Good fun.

West Ham United

The Hammers’ image of a club in perpetual turmoil appears to be fading.  While West Ham continues to be stuck in-or-near the middle of the table year after year, the arrival of drama-free manager Manuel Pellegrini seems to have brought a stabilizing influence.  The signing of Felipe Anderson from Lazio has given fans a goalscorer to cheer about, and Issa Diop helped the club keep out 13 more goals.  However, the move from North to East London has not made Jack Wilshere any less brittle, and an early injury to Dortmund import Andrii Yarmolenko was a blow.  Those two should be back for the new season and, barring a summer contract extension, perpetual IR list member Andy Carroll will be off the books.

An improvement of 10 points and three table places means a successful rebuilding year for the Iron.

Watford

We’ll temper this one after looking at their last four matches: a draw, and three losses, albeit to Top Ten sides.  It was rough end to the season for a club that constantly hovered in and around the top half of the table.  Javi Gracia’s first full season in charge earned the Hornets three more wins, nine more points and three higher spots than last year.  Troy Deeney was Mr. Watford, pure entertainment for the “purist”, and Doucouré was an ever-present large menace in the goal box.  But Gracia’s, um, coup de grâce, was signing Gerard Deulofeu from Barcelona on a permanent.  The journeyman Spaniard was good for 10 goals and 5 assists, helping Mssrs. Deeney and Doucouré along the way.  The reward is an appearance at Wembley, a possible trophy, and the European campaign that goes along with it.


LOSERS

United lose to Cardiff on last day

United need a lot of work in the off-season.

Manchester United

The club removed a tyrant for the prince that was foretold… except that hasn’t worked out; it’s all gone Game of Thrones, hasn’t it? (As opposed to the constant Lord of the Rings references for Ole Gunnar Solskjær… would that make this season a Three-Ring Serkis?)  We were constantly told that José Mourinho had lost the plot, had turned on his players and was content to go scorched earth as United lost three and drew one in their first seven matches.  Training ground arguments, dressing room mutinies, as well as increasingly bizarre press conferences meant that a mid-December loss to Liverpool was the final straw.

Enter Old Trafford’s Hamlet from stage left.  The provisional manager appeared to kick at the daylight and a new era began as United went undefeated for 12 straight matches.  Then Solskjær was signed as the permanent manager and the players were content to watch their season burn: eight points from their last nine matches, as well as falling out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals.  It turns out it was the players after all…

So here they sit.  No Champions League next season.  If Arsenal beat Chelsea in the Europa league final, United will be the only Top Six team not in Europe’s top competition.  To make matters worse, if Watford win the FA Cup, United would have to start Europa League qualifying matches in mid-July.

The squad is a shambles and it will likely take a small fortune for proper replacements.  It turns out Paul Pogba is dressing-room poison, despite his obvious talent.  It turns out Romelu Lukaku is not a big-club player, and may actually be an anachronism in this era of twitchy wingers and counter-pressing.  It turns out that Alexis Sanchez is a multi-million pound albatross that will be difficult to move.  It turns out (to the surprise of almost no one) that United’s back line is a shambles, and that wholesale change is critical.

As the years pass, the evidence grows stronger that United’s biggest superstar for years was Sir Alex Ferguson.  Good luck finding his successor.  It isn’t OGS.

Burnley

This one might be a bit unfair, except that the Premier League is a cruel place, what with all the money at stake.  Burnley have known the see-saw battle of the “small” club (even though they are one of said Original 12) for years, but after last season’s seventh place finish on a shoe-string budget, expectations were maybe not high, but there was optimism.

Then came an early Europa League campaign, and the apparent abandonment of the defence-first strategy that worked so well last season.  Burnley were then left gasping for air for most of the season, and the club dropped 14 points and eight places.  If not for the bottom three’s efforts to speed towards the trap door, Burnley might have been looking at a Championship stint in the fall; it may just be delaying the inevitable.  The Clarets had a dismal -23 goal difference, and finished the season on a draw and three losses.  Expect more of the same in August, and another relegation battle for the Lancashire club.

Huddersfield Town

Unfortunately, this one was on the cards from the get-go.  The Terriers had wait until November for their first win… one of only three on the season.   A precipitous drop of 21 points from last season sent them to Number 20 with a bullet.  Maybe they will return to the Prem with the help of parachute payments, but not likely.

Cardiff City

Never really a contender or hopeful to stay up, this club was here sightseeing.  No money, no players, no hope.   Plus the added bonus of not having to listen to “proper footballing man” Neil Warnock spout off venom and crap.

Fulham

See above, except some pundits were genuinely excited about the Cottagers’ scrappy line-up.  Aleksandar Mitrović started strong with five goals in six games, and then scored six in the next 32.   Fulham had seven wins all season; three of those came after they were relegated.  ‘Nuff said.

Brighton and Hove Albion

Saved only by Cardiff’s self-immolation, the Seagulls basically repeated their previous PL season.  Yes, Glenn Murray continued to defy Father Time and scored goals in the double digits.  But the Cumbrian aside, Albion was positively anemic, both on the score sheet and in the league table.  Only earning two wins after Christmas has cost Chris Hughton his job.  The club are tourists in the top flight, and will likely return home in 2020.


UNKNOWN

Sarri Upset

Will Sarri win the battle of wills at Stamford Bridge?

Chelsea

Sure they qualified for the Champions League, but the last two spots were a hot potato that no one seemed to want at the end of the season.  At times, Mauricio Sarri carried on with the frantic exasperation of a taxi dispatcher, smoking and pacing on the sidelines.  He was obviously brought in to make Chelsea better, and to lead a fractious dressing room that had full-on revolted against fellow Italian, Antonio Conte.

But did he? The same player issues seem to still be there, despite bringing midfield quarterback Jorginho with him from Napoli, as well as spending £72M on Kepa from Bilbao… with whom he had an apoplectic, and very public, battle in the League Cup final.  Chelsea is a club with notorious “player power” whose owner seems to listen to his on-field staff more than his managers.

Chelsea finished the season with only two more points than last year, and practically the same goals for and against.  The only difference is that Chelsea’s rivals appeared in the same rush to lose.  With main goalscorer Eden Hazard almost certainly on his way to Real Madrid, Sarri had better hope he can continue to mould his team in his unwavering image, while continuing to challenge for the Top Four.  Of course, there is the little matter of UEFA’s transfer ban for Financial Fair Play violations… maybe winning the silver of a Europa League trophy will add some shine to this season.

Tottenham Hotspur

What to say about Spurs? Frankly, with all the factors lined up against them, they should have no business being in the Champions League final, and have had to fight hard to stay in the Premier League Top Four.  After a net spend of £18M last season, owner Daniel Levy spent a grand total of £0 on new players in the summer of 2018.  Nicht.  Nil.  Zip.

Tottenham had to contend with another season at Wembley, as construction delays at the new White Hart Lane ate away at the club’s bottom line on the daily.  They have a gifted and charismatic manager who made rumblings all season, hinting that the owner needed to spend or else he was off to a “bigger” club.  They had a threadbare squad that fans had to hope would push through injury and fatigue.

Obviously, they were not disappointed.  Spurs have managed to scrape into the Champions League… even though their talismanic striker was obviously exhausted after going deep into the World Cup with England.  Harry Kane was out for a quarter of Spurs’ league games.  It didn’t stop Spurs from mounting the Mother of All Comebacks.

That’s because there are two new folk heroes of Haringay: Heung-min Son, a man who is obviously experiencing pure joy playing for the Spurs faithful, and Lucas Moura, who will eternally be remembered for THAT game in Amsterdam.  After everything stacked up against Spurs, a first-ever Champions League trophy would simply be mythical.

But one can not stand still in the Premier League.  You only have to think back to rivals Arsenal in the early 2000’s to see the financial effects of a brand-new stadium.  Yes the gate will dramatically increase, but it will likely take at least a decade to pay off the new-build’s capital costs.  Levy is frugal at the best of times, and Mauricio Pochettino wants assurances that he will have cash to splash, come July.  Christian Eriksen is valued at around £77M right now, and Levy will likely sell to spend.  Otherwise, the Miracle of North London will end just as it did in the mid-70s, and early 90s…

Arsenal

After 22 years under a single manager, Arsenal’s post-Wenger era was always going to be trepidatious.  Certainly the Frenchman’s replacement had the pedigree.  Unai Emery has three European titles to his name, along with a two-season stint at French giant Paris Saint-Germain.  But Emery walked into a hodgepodge of a dressing room.  He inherited a wonderful offence… and a truly terrible back line.  Koscielny is brittle and past it, Xhaka and Mustafi are volatile liabilities, and bringing in Stephan Lichsteiner — whose attempts to use sh!thousery to cover a serious decline — was never going to be the answer.  Emery’s thinly-veiled battles with Mezut Özil and fan-favourite Aaron Ramsey have angered many Arsenal supporters.

However, Emery does have the front pairing of Golden Boot winner Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.  His purchase of Lucas Torreira from Sampdoria was inspired; same with Sokratis who, despite losing his head now and then, was coveted by several Premier League teams.

Losing out on Champions League qualification on the second-last week of the season had to sting.  That pain will subside completely if they beat rivals Chelsea on the 29th.  But they will need to find more cohesion, more sense of self, more Arsenal of old.

Newcastle United

Sigh.  The “fans hate Mike Ashley/the manager might be leaving/please sell the club” narrative is now a decade old.  Newcastle actually finished with one more point this season, but dropped three places.  Content to play like a much smaller club, the Magpies have firmly ensconced themselves in the third quadrant of the Premier League table.  Of course, that could change if the ownership does as well…

Bournemouth

Whither Eddie Howe? The Premier League’s longest-serving manager (approaching seven years) has kept his club in the top flight for five seasons.  When the Cherries finished ninth three years ago, the typical hyperbole about “the young English manager” whipped around, including as a potential replacement for Arsene Wenger or, heaven’s mercy, England.  Certainly Howe is quite good at nurturing young talent, but he spent £80M in the off-season with minimal results.  Twenty-five million of that money was spent on defensive midfielder Jefferson Lerma… yet Bournemouth let in nine more goals in 2018/19.  Chances are good that Bournemouth will be in the relegation battle come next spring.

Southampton

The good news for the Saints is Mark Hughes is not their manager anymore, replaced in December by the equally sparky (but by all accounts, much nicer) Ralph Hassenhüttl.   Under Hughes, Southampton had four league matches in an entire calendar year… including a solitary victory from the start of the season to his firing.  Under Hassenhüttl, the team earned an 8-6-10 record… not lighting up the league, but certainly enough to dig themselves out of a dark hole.  What is worrying for the club is that, despite the threat of relegation, Southampton finished with three draws and two losses; all of those opponents finished 11th or lower.  Luckily, Cardiff fell on the sword instead, and Ralph & Co. get to play in the Premier League for another year.


MEH…

Marco Silva

Much ado about nothing…

Everton

All the drama surrounding the hiring of Marco Silva appeared to be blowing up in the Toffees’ face.  Everton mostly languished outside the Top 10 until the middle of March, when they finished a strong 5-3-2, and landed exactly where they were 12 months ago: eighth.  No Everton Cup for you, Everton.  Now let’s see if Silva will be allowed to replenish his aging squad, as well as loanees Kurt Zouma and André Gomes, while keeping Gylfi Sigurdsson down on the farm.

Leicester City

Well… you couldn’t find two more different managers then the gaffers that took charge at the King Power this season.  By all accounts, Claude Puel was not the most inspiring of generals, and his record with the Foxes was positively insipid.  Enter Brendan “Enough About Me, Let’s Talk About Me” Rodgers, whose 6-3-2 record helped Leicester claw its way back and finish in the same spot as last year: ninth.  Puel’s great crime was spending all that Riyad Mahrez money, and then wasting it.  Rodgers let loose £22M signing Ricardo Pereira up the wings and he was rewarded with crosses galore.

Leicester is a very talented squad.  Example: despite all the hype around Manchester City and Liverpool, Jamie Vardy was mostly overlooked as he finished the season with 18 league goals… good enough for fifth overall, and more than Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Eden Hazard.  The problem (sorry, “challenge”) is that the club recently won the Premier League title.  It was an anomaly… but now the team and the fans feel they should be challenging for the Top Six.  They’ve got their work cut out for themselves.

Crystal Palace

A slight improvement in both offence and defence, if not in table position, Crystal Palace are as bland and anonymous as their manager… and that’s not a dig either.  An almost perpetual dweller in the lower leagues, Palace have now managed to stay in the top flight for six seasons.  Roy Hodgson has taken his patchwork quilt of cast-off players and held onto that mushy, nebulous part of the table that will rarely rise into the Top 10 but, with a bit of luck, won’t get relegated either.  After relying on Wilfried Zaha as the sole goalscorer, Hodgson now has options: hard man captain Luka Milivojević led the team in scoring with 12 goals.  Not bad for a supposed “defensive midfielder”.  Expect more of the same from Palace next season.

All right: now bring on the finals for the FA Cup, Europa League, Champions League and Nations League!

Brent Lanthier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Best of the Prem: Swansea City to Wolverhampton

Roy Hodgson does his best George Bailey impression: “Well, I don’t have your trophy. It’s at Roman’s house… and Alex’s house… and Roberto’s house…”

Part Four takes us to a team that squandered their European dreams, another side that dropped like a stone, a third that pulled away from the edge of the precipice, and then two more that found the soft, creamy middle of the table.  Let’s have a look at their best, shall we?

The Dutchman did his part…

SWANSEA CITY
Michel Vorm (NED) – The first Welsh team in Premier League history was the mirror image of its fellow Championship graduate, Norwich.  Just like the East Anglians, the Swans’ gaffer opted for a wide-open system that had trouble on the counter.  Good thing Swansea had Michel Vorm.  The Dutchman faced a barrage of shots, but his save percentage remained in the top flight’s top five.  That’s why he will compete for the honour of being the Oranje ‘s No. 2 in the Ukraine this summer.

Ade wants to stay

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
Emmanuel Adebayor (TOT) – I know that many Spurs fans — along with several neutral observers — will take issue with this pick. Why not Gareth Bale, or Luka Modric?  But the stats are pretty clear: more goals, more assists in the league, more possession, more clear chances on goal.  Sure the big man up front was a bit of lazy git at times, and Tottenham fans are worried that they have another Berbatov on their hands.  But the Togolese striker was lethal for the Lilywhites and, more importantly, he wants to stay.  The same might not be said for his teammates in midfield.

The Baggies’ Foster child…

WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Ben Foster (ENG) – Beware when your best player is a keeper.  WBA finished a positively decent 10th place under a positively decent manager, Uncle Woy.  Peter Odemwingie had a decent season with 10 goals in the league.  The Baggies were 12th in scoring, 14th in defence.  Foster was decent in the middle of the goalkeeper pack when it came to saves and goals against.  All of this bodes well for England, doesn’t it?… Doesn’t it?!?

NOT Gary Caldwell…

WIGAN ATHLETIC
Gary Caldwell (SCO) – Hey Wigan! Come here, you! No, go away! No, come here! No, go away! The Latics channeled the ghost of Alexei Sayle by dallying with relegation for the entire season (Editor’s Note: Alexei Sayle is not dead).  Wigan were bottom of the table as late as St. Patrick’s Day, so it was apropos that a former shamrock-wearing defender led the charge to safety.   Gary Caldwell’s team posted a record of eight wins and only two losses in their last nine matches, while only letting in seven goals.  That’s as many as the eventual champions, Manchester City.  (Ed. Note: Caldwell didna kill his brother — and former Wigan teammate — Stephen.  He’s at Birmingham City… )

Wolves say they won’t let Fletcher go…

WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS
Steven Fletcher (SCO) – One of the only above-average players on a very sub-par squad, Fletcher had more goals than Frank Lampard, Rafael van der Vaart, Chicharito and Gareth Bale.  ‘Nuff said…

Brent Lanthier

Up Next: Season’s Starting XI and ATR’s PoY!

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The Best of Times, The Blurst of Times

Do Wolves have any legs left?

Call it the Year of the Keystone Kops… a season where clubs have been stumbling over each other to fail.   So forget about Manchester United’s mediocre march to the title (and don’t tell me they’re up for the double by winning Big Ears.  If Schalke doesn’t surprise them, Real or Barca will certainly dispatch them with maximum efficiency).  Forget about Arsenal finding new and novel ways to self-destruct, sending Arsene Wenger further along the road to Nutterville. Chelsea are old.  Man Citeh’s millions couldn’t buy a team.  ‘Arry’s mighty offence petered out.  Liverpool were already falling down the hill.  And as usual, David Moyes’ Everton started too late to matter.

So with the exception of the FA Cup final — whose implications for Europe require an engineering degree to calculate — I’m watching the relegation battle that potentially involves half the league.

Two points separate seven teams: Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Brom, Fulham, Stoke City, Sunderland and Birmingham.  All sit relatively safe.  Next are Blackburn and Wigan in the two spots above the relegation zone that currently contains Blackpool, West Ham and Wolves.  Newcastle and Villa (at 10th and 11th, respectively) have reached the so-called magic number of 40 points.  For the others, the next 5-6 games are critical.

Wide-eyed Woy widing high at WBA

I’m going to go out on a limb and say West Bromwich Albion are safe.  Saturday’s loss to Chelsea was their first under Roy Hodgson, and no club has scored more since his reign began. 

Hodgson’s legacy of going for the draw seems to be lingering at Fulham under Mark Hughes.  The Cottagers’ next two games are at bottom Wolves before they host Bolton, who are woeful on the road.  They should hit the 40-point mark no problem.

Stoke City and Birmingham are the Premier League’s little European embarrassments.  Birmingham is already in the Europa League, via their Carling Cup win… but whether Stoke qualifies is still up in the air.  If they win the FA Cup final, they are in.  If they lose but Citeh qualifies for the Champions League, they are in.  Otherwise the spot goes to the sixth-placed team… I think… carry the one…

Either way, both have not been playing well as of late, with each team only winning two games in their last eight.   The bad news for Stoke is that they must face three other relegation battlers — Blackpool, Wolves and Wigan — plus Arsenal and the aforementioned Citeh.  Birmingham must also face teams fighting for a spot in Europe.  I think they will both stay up… only because there are teams playing worse.  But if they drop, it means two of England’s three Europa clubs won’t be playing in the top-flight at home.

That leaves six teams fighting it out for three spots above the drop.  Wolverhampton Wanderers are 20th, but they will leapfrog Wigan into 17th if they win that game in hand against Stoke.  Many pundits say Wolves are too good to go down… and they took some serious scalps this season.  But despite their recent form, every single one of their remaining games is against a struggling club.  It could be tough going for Mick McCarthy’s men.

Bruce wonders where it went wrong

At the beginning of the season, I picked Wigan Athletic to drop, partly because they barely missed it last year… but mostly because I was irritated that such a small, unsupported club was taking up a Premier League spot.  They also have to play several games against strugglers… as well as a surging Everton.

West Ham United sit 19th.  I thought with the addition of Demba Ba, they might have a fighting shot at making it out alive.  But they remain ensconced in the drop zone due to their inability to go for the jugular.

It’s the three remaining clubs that have the most to worry about.  Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool and Sunderland have been dropping like stones.  Blackburn have performed poorly since the departure of Big Sam Allardyce.  Blackpool and Sunderland seem to be on opposite sides of a mirror.  The Black Cats haven’t been the same since they lost their best player in Darren Bent; the Tangerines have suffered without cashing in on Charlie Adam.  Out of the three clubs, only Blackpool has won a game since the end of January.

In such a topsy-turvy season, I still think we are in for some surprises on the final day of the season… on both ends of the table.  It’s either the best season in years… or English football is at it’s most mediocre.

By the way, here are my picks for the drop: Wigan, Blackpool, West Ham.

Brent Lanthier

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Fergie’s Fantasy: What I Did and Why I Did it…

Barton elbows Parker out of Ferg's lineup.

So here’s where I stand.  I’m running sixth in the table right now in my fantasy league… but it’s a mere 30 ponts or so from the top spot so it’s still a very tight racel.  I’d feel great if I was Bolton trying for a Europa league spot, but I picture myself more of a Manchester United or Chelsea type when it comes to fantasy football.  After all, I need not remind all those in my pool that I am the defending champ.  The title holder cannot be satisfied with anything but a repeat… so it’s time to play my wild card. 

I figure if At the Rails allows me to give my opinions and advice on how to win your fantasy league, then you may at least want to know how I spent my wild card this transfer window.  The January wild card means you can make as many transfers as you want for one week, but it’s only good for another month.

So I made some moves.  Because really, who wants to read a fantasy column by a guy in sixth?

THE BIG SIGNINGS

First thing to do is figure out who the players are that you don’t have and feel you need, regardless of the cost.   For me, I added high-priced members of Manchester United: Dimitar Berbatov, who I think will continue to score — especially if Rooney stays healthy — and Nani, who has been one of the top point-getters this year. 

To make room, I let go of Johan Elmander who seems to have turned cold after a hot start to the season, and I dropped Samir Nasri.  Dropping Nasri could turn out to be a mistake, but I felt Nani will outscore him and Man United make a push for the title.

THE SACRIFICES

Unfortunately this left me in the hole moneywise.  My big sacrifice was dropping Joe Hart.  His high price has scared off many from picking him up but I have had him from Week One and watched as he more than earned the high price, leading all goalies in fantasy points. 

Scottish and cheap... it's like saying it twice!

But I had to save money for what I felt was a great option out there: Craig Gordon.  Gordon has been injured so his price is low. But since he’s been back, Sunderland have been regularly keeping clean sheets.  I saved some more money at the goalkeeper position by dropping the injured Paul Robinson and picking up Steve Harper who seems to back in the top job for Newcastle. (Ed. Note: I always thought he was a right-winger!  Ahahahahahaha… I’ll shut up now.)

To make it work right down to the penny meant dropping Scott Parker from West Ham for Newcastle’s Joey Barton.  Barton, like many Newcastle players, is still a little undervalued in my opinion… though I will likely keep him mainly on the bench.  And I got rid of Birmingham defender Roger Johnson (whose team I appear to have put a curse on ever since acquiring him as they stopped keeping clean sheets) for Kevin Foley from Wolves.  That move was done purely for cost reasons, but it’s good to know Foley is a cheap starter if I ever need to put him in.

KEEPERS

Rounding out the squad I kept pricey defenders Nemanja Vidic and Leighton Baines, who I think are worth paying top dollar for.  I also kept Everton’s Seamus Coleman (who is really a midfielder so a good buy since the game has him slotted as a defender) along with Fulham’s Aaron Hughes.  I also held on to the stars of the Tottenham midfield Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart along with Stoke’s Matthew Etherington. 

Up front I couldn’t part with Carlos Tevez, despite his high price and his constant snood wearing.  I also held on to Andrew Carroll hoping his current injury woes are not too serious.

Will these changes take me to the top of the table? Short answer.  I hope so.  I’ve already spent all the money I collected.

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Mr. Popularity

You're always picked last when your name starts with "Z"...

Just like in high school, Mr. Popularity is not your friend.

The only difference is that in high school you really hoped he would be. As a fantasy manager, you might want to have the same players as everyone else in order to keep pace, but to make a move up the table you are going to need to do some scouting and grab point-getters the other teams don’t have.

In fantasy terms, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba is the most popular player owned by 45% of all fantasy teams. He’s closely followed by teammate Florent Malouda and Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, both of whom are above the 40% mark. These are great players and great picks. I have all three on my personal fantasy team. But I have done some digging for you and found four solid players chosen by a mere 1% of all fantasy teams. When you see them score on Saturday you won’t have to worry that you are sharing those points with half the pool!

The One Percenters:

Carlos Salcido – The Fulham right back has kept John Pantsil on the bench for good reason. His accurate crosses are turning into goals for Craven Cottagers like Clint Dempsey.

Greek Love...

Sotirios Kyrgiakos – A bright spot on Liverpool’s back line, he’s got two goals already and is still pretty affordable at 5.1.

Nikola Zigic – The massive Birmingham striker was on the bench for the early part of the season but has played every minute of the last three games. With goals in two of three of those starts, he will likely remain a fixture of their starting 11.

Marcus Hahnemann– Wolves have had problems keeping clean sheets this year, but Hahnemann has played every minute of the season. He could be worth picking up as your backup keeper, starting him when WW play weaker teams at home (Yes, technically, I know only West Ham is weaker right now… but you know what I mean…)

Scott’s Subs
Here’s who you should bring in and keep out this week.

Nolan has been "duck"ing praise up on Tyneside

In: Kevin Nolan – Newcastle United — It’s never a good idea to pick up a player right after he gets a hat trick, but how can you resist Nolan? He already has 7 goals and will still only cost you 5.8 to pick him up. You’ll enjoy his duck-like arm-flapping goal celebration more if he’s earning you fantasy points.

Out: Charlie Adam – Blackpool — His numbers are very good for what he costs, but I’m thinking Blackpool are going to flame out pretty soon and start edging their way towards the bottom of the table rather than the top.

In: Clint Dempsey – Fulham — Another knee jerk reaction on my part? Perhaps. He did just score two goals last week… but he’s also among the top scoring midfielders this season in terms of fantasy points overall. His price of 7 at the beginning of the season was a bit high — he’s now at a more reasonable 6.7.

Out: Michael Essien – Chelsea — A wonderful player, but there are just too many other scorers on the champions for Essien to make a great offensive impact. And with Frank Lampard coming back soon, one can only presume he’ll see the ball even less.

In: Sotirios Kyrgiakos – Liverpool — For all the reasons I’ve stated above… and because I’ve recently been very hard on Liverpool players…

Out: Luke Young — Aston Villa — In the past, he’s been an average fantasy pick… but as his price creeps up to 5.2, I think it’s time to let him go. He is coming off a clean sheet performance but I doubt Aston Villa have a pile of those coming in the future.

My Form

Over the past two weeks, the players I’ve recommend have scored an average of 5.25 points a game. The average starter has scored 4.15 and the players I’ve told you to avoid have averaged 2 points.  Note that I was not asked to show my work on those calculations.

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy: Winning Strategies

We’re a few weeks into the season now and you are either feeling good about the start of your team’s season… or perhaps you feel a bit like West Ham, searching for answers on how it all went so wrong so quickly.

Unfortunately for you, firing the manager early on to get the attention of your lacklustre players is not an option. So the only way to get your mates — who have clearly been more lucky than clever — to shut up is to grin and bear it and fight your way back to the top!

Here are some proven winning strategies that you can apply whether you are at the top of the table or in danger of being relegated.

1. Steady as she goes with the Captain
You don’t see Steven Gerrard passing around the captain’s armband each week and neither should you. You’ve likely selected one of the highest-priced players to captain your squad like Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Fernando Torres, Gerrard, Cesc Fabregas, or Carlos Tevez.

If you have done that, it means you’ve locked up more than ten percent of your available money into one player. That alone makes it worthwhile  to keep them as your captain. I’m not saying keep them forever but all of those players are proven performers…  and the week you transfer them out of your squad is the week they likely get a hat trick.

2. Watch the fixture list
This goes without saying: check to see who is playing who each week. One day you may feel like starting Matthew Upson or Robert Green from West Ham… just not this week when Chelsea is coming to town (I know, I’m picking on West Ham, but so is everyone else who plays them). On the other hand, it’s a good week to get your Fulham defenders out there as they are home to Wolves.

You especially need to watch the fixture list when it comes to choosing your starting goalie and defenders. Those players who have home games will serve you well.

This is also why it’s important to make sure your bench is filled with players who start, and not just cheap throwaway players. Having low priced starters on the bench gives you more flexibility in choosing your line-up.

With offensive midfielders and strikers, home field advantages appears to be less pronounced. The good ones bulge the twine regularly on the road as well as at their home ground.

Brunt: A Matter of Time?

3. You are your own scouting department
Sure you have me to tell you what to do, but there really is no better substitute than watching your players in action.

Taking in the full 90 minutes or the highlights, or reading a description of the game on the web, you’ll get a sense of who is ready to go on a hot streak and whose numbers may be deceiving.

For example — and I’ve yet to be proven right about this — I’ve been watching West Brom’s Chris Brunt ring balls off the woodwork. It’s only a matter of time before he puts a few into the net.

4. Don’t pay for transfers
Yes, I know you watched Asamoah Gyan at the World Cup… and now that he’s on Sunderland you need him on your team. But at the same time, you may be an Arsenal fan who has really missed Alexander Hleb and you want him as well. Don’t pay the four points to pick up both. It’s never worth it.

Trust me, when you look back at the end of the season and see how many points you spent on transfers, it can be the difference between a top five finish and being mid-table. If you need to add more than one player in a week because of injuries, then play your wild card. You get another wild card to use during the January transfer window so don’t be shy about using it.

Whatever you do, don’t pay for extra transfers now. Wait a week until you have another free transfer at your disposal.

5. Read the tabloids (or at least, more than just the box scores)
You need to know about any external pressures or distractions facing your squad. You might not care that Wayne Rooney is getting a red card from his wife for scoring away from home, but you need to know how it will affect his game this weekend.  Sure, he scored in Switzerland for England, but I think the Everton fans are going to give him a much rougher time which may rattle him a bit. Mea culpa here though: despite this, I do plan to keep Wayne on my team this week.

What about Cesc Fabregas and his badly-wanted non-transfer to Barcelona? I believed him when he said he was ready to give Arsenal his full effort, but we have yet to really see it on the pitch.

Foster may have something to prove

On the more positive side, players like Birmingham’s Ben Foster have something to prove after not fitting in with Manchester United’s plans and he has shown some strong work in goal so far this season.

Admittedly, this is not an exact science. But you want to look for players with extra motivation and shy away from those with off the field drama.

FERGIE’S FIVE TO WATCH:

Captain: I’m sounding like a broken record here, but it’s hard to have a better start to the season than Didier Drogba. This week he has another favourable match up with Chelsea visiting struggling West Ham (okay, next week I promise to lay off West Ham).

Bargain Bin: I’m sure he’ll slow down eventually, but there’s no better bargain right now than Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll. His squad are home versus Blackpool so we may see him put a few more in the back of the net.

Also, Alexander Hleb is available for a good price as he returns to the Premier League. I presume he’ll get a lot of minutes with Birmingham but you may want to hold off a game or two before adding him just to see how he fits into the squad.

In Form: It really hurts me to write nice things about Chelsea players but honestly: who is playing better than Florent Malouda? He has scored in every game this season.

X-Factor: Will Louis Saha of Everton finally get on the score sheet? Normally I wouldn’t pick a striker to take advantage of Manchester United coming to town. But don’t forget that United is his old club, so there could be some extra motivation this week. And if he doesn’t show up this week it might be time for a transfer out of your team.

Scott Ferguson

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Fergie’s Fantasy: So You Got That Promotion…

Newcastle's Steven Taylor will likely play every week

In your regular life outside of fantasy football, you probably find those who have been recently promoted rather annoying and smug.   But in the fantasy world, you need to make friends with them and bring them on to your side.

On paper, the three newly-promoted squads may look like the Premier League equivalent of the kids who always got picked last on the playground pitch. But in reality, even if the teams are getting beat up on a weekly basis in real life, Newcastle, West Bromwich Albion, and Blackpool all have players that are affordable — that will play every week — and that will even chip in points on occasion.

You want the grinders that will earn points on the cheap so you can afford the big stars. What you are looking for is someone who will give you the performances we saw last year from Wolves defender Jody Craddock — Birmingham’s Lee Bowyer — or Joe Hart, who shone in goal for Birmingham while on loan from Manchester City.

Anybody can pick Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney.  But it takes skill and guts to pick up and start the right players from the newly promoted
squads. Here are some players worth considering…

Goalkeepers:
This is a risky proposition…  but it should be noted that after only two weeks, all three keepers from the promoted sides have one clean sheet. Sure, two of the three also let in six goals in their other game (eep!)…  but let’s focus on the clean sheets.

Newcastle’s Steven Harper is a quality premier league goalie and with his team likely poised to avoid relegation, he is the pick of this group.

Scott Carson: Man of Constant Sorrow? Or Points?

That said, I also like West Brom’s Scott Carson.  He has Premier League experience, comes at a very low price, and is guaranteed to face a lot of shots. He may not get many clean sheets, but in most games, he will get you a bonus point for making three saves.  And he’s already played his road game against Chelsea so you don’t have to worry about that fixture.

I would avoid Blackpool’s Matthew Gilks.  I just don’t trust that Blackpool are going to have the kind of success their drubbing of Wigan in Week One would suggest.

Defenders:
Again, assuming Newcastle have a strong season, you can count on Fabricio
Coloccini being a constant presence along their back four.  You can’t miss him, he’s the one with the huge mane of curly hair.

Jonas Olsson had a pair of goals and lots of playing time during West Brom’s last season in the Premier League two years ago.

Catchart traded Devil Red for Tangerine

And if you want to take a chance on a real cheap player, there is the rock bottom price for Craig Cathcart of Blackpool.  I do think Blackpool will concede the most goals in the league this year, but Cathcart spent years training with Manchester United.  Though he played very little with the Red Devils, he has played every minute of this young season with Blackpool.

Midfielders:
I have sung his praises in previous columns — and it has yet to pay off — but Chris Brunt of West Brom is a pleasure to watch.  He signalled his intentions last weekend with a long range strike that was only kept from the highlight reel by the woodwork.  He’s the most expensive player you can buy from West Brom — but still very cheap when compared to quality midfielders on other teams.

Barton: Solid tash, solid points earner

With two goals last week, Kevin Nolan is off to a strong start for Newcastle. The Magpies boast a solid midfield that also includes Joey Barton and Jonas Gutierrez.  Barton scored a highlight reel goal last weekend, and there’s every reason to think we could see more of the same from him.  Jonas is more of a grinder but does get a ton of playing time.

Strikers:
I don’t really trust any of West Brom’s strikers to score a lot of fantasy points and I still don’t know what to make of Blackpool’s Marlon Harewood.  He’s puzzling.  He’s kicked around on a few different teams in the Premier and Championship leagues over the past few seasons, but his two goals in Week One showed he could prove himself as a player who belongs in the top flight.  At this point he is still a bit of a risk… but at least he’s a cheap one.

The cream of this crop is Newcastle’s Andrew Carroll.  I feel a bit stupid on this one, because I gave strong consideration to putting him on my team based on his strong numbers in the Championship last season. But I didn’t do it, fearing what I’ve seen from other strikers who have flopped in the Premier League after good Championship seasons (Sylvan Ebanks-Blake for example).  Nothing like a hat trick to boost your confidence though, and with his performance last week I think Carroll will continue to have a fine campaign.

And not to gloat but…

I selected five players for you to consider last week and four had huge weeks. Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda, Gareth Bale, and Joe Hart all
put up big numbers.  Only Marlon Harewood was a bust.

This week with Chelsea at home to Stoke City, you still can’t go wrong with Malouda or Drogba.  Fulham’s David Stockdale may be a fine bargain — he is on the road in net against Blackpool. The only risk with him is whether Mark Schwarzer returns to his starting role, but rumours persist that he will be transferred to Arsenal.

Speaking of the Gooners, Theo Walcott is looking good after his hat trick last week.  His price is rising and now may be the time to pick him up while it’s still reasonable.

Scott Ferguson

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