Gameweek 34 (GW34) provides the first of a series of double gameweeks (DGW) as the season turns down the final stretch. The Stoosher FC management team, er, me, having pulled the wildcard (WC), face a quandary. Middleborough (bou, SUN), Crystal Palace (liv, TOT), and Manchester United (bur, mci) all turn up with double the pleasure over the next 6-7 days. Or double the pain, perhaps. Should the management team risk some hits for the DGW34 only to pivot to more hits to get a full 15-man DGW squad for the bench boost (BB) in the mega-DGW37? We try to puzzle out our options ahead of GW34 . . .
The Lukaku Adventure.
Romelu Lukaku has been in and out of the Stoosher FC side all season; we’ve held him through his longest barren spell and had him for a few major hauls. He’s back in the side, although frequent readers will know I “rage transferred” (beer-induced, of course) him out after his non-performances against Liverpool and Manchester United. But there he was, back in the side for a 12-point armband performance last week.
We’ve seen Lukaku typically struggle against the better sides this year and absolutely roll many of the weaker sides so far. He’s been far better at home than away as well. The run-in is a mix of Beastmode and Frustration Special: whu, CHE, swa, WAT, ars. The schedule suggests this might be the opportunity to move on; three away games and two games against top sides in five remaining games when many teams have six or even seven games left.
But there are a few reasons Lukaku probably will remain in the side until the bitter end. First, West Ham and the ‘other fish to fry’ problem. Despite a clean sheet against Swansea in its last home game, West Ham have shown sieve-like qualities in defence. Darren Randolph has provided some goalkeeping highlight reel performances recently but not in a good way. In the four home games sandwiched between clean sheets v. Crystal Palace and the Swansea clean sheet, West Ham have conceded – 3, 2, 2, 4. And, aside from the West Ham defence, we need to sort other issues ahead of a DGW34.
Second, Lukaku’s motivation. No doubt he is desperate to win the Golden Boot and a healthy Harry Kane threatens that. The other motivating factor: Chelsea. Rumoured to be a target for the Blues, the big man will likely feel inspired next week when the Blues come to Goodison to prove his ‘flat track bully only’ critics wrong.
Third, Watford at Goodison in GW37. Against a Watford side, perhaps looking ahead to summer, as the cliché goes for end-of-season safe, mid-table teams, this seems Lukaku’s best opportunity to add to his tally. He looks like my only non-DGW guy that week. And, GW38 at Arsenal? Nobody has confused Arsenal’s defence with Juventus’ defence this year.
The management team will stock a little valium we can wash down with our pilsners when Lukaku inevitably turns in one of his ‘four touches in the box, no shots on target’ performances or those moments where his hold up play results in a Ross Barkley cross which Phil Jagielka gets on the end of; but our consensus is that there will be more joy than pain.
There is nothing easy in the decision making process this week as to whether to load up for the DGW. Or not. Middlesborough – the lowest scoring team in the EPL, seven goals below Burnley – is the only team of the three with a favourable schedule. Manchester United, the draw kings of EPL (12, tied with ‘Boro), have scored – by 12 goals – fewer than any other team in the top seven. On the other hand, United have only conceded 24 goals, fewest in the EPL but for Tottenham. One of Burnley away or City away must have 0-0 written all over it. Which one though? And Crystal Palace has quite possibly the worst DGW you could imagine; a visit to the highest scoring team in the Prem in Liverpool and then, after that battering, the second highest scoring team in the Prem stop by in Tottenham.
Oh, fun. Big Sam’s tactical acumen will be put to the test.
These factors have fantasy managers twisting and turning; weighing the merits of players they would never otherwise consider (Ander Herrera. Really?). The other factor is whether you have already pulled your WC and whether you still have your BB. If you have both, you can surely take a bit of a chance this week and easily pivot with your WC to DGW36 (Arsenal and Southampton) and the mega-DGW37. If you have used your WC, then you must either be (1) more circumspect so as to pivot to DGW37 or (2) be prepared to take some points hits.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the likely prospects and pros and cons of the DGW teams.
Twenty-three goals in 33 games does not scream “opportunity” for attacking returns. Alvaro Negredo has eight league goals this year. Two in the last three games. Both the DGW games – at Bournemouth and Sunderland – are absolute “must win” games for ‘Boro. Because the schedule gets absolutely brutal for the final four: Mci, che, SOT, liv. So you would expect ‘Boro to open up the attack a bit and take some chances for goals. This looks like a 2-3 goal DGW for the side. I honestly expect Negredo to get something. Is it worth a transfer? Or, should I say two – because you have to immediately pivot with Negredo to get him out ahead of the last four games. If I thought ‘Boro had 4 goals in them over the DGW, I’d be more inclined to bite. But I don’t.
The scary bit defensively for ‘Boro, is that they will have to take chances to score; not bunker in as they have done all season until last week. I have Ben Gibson; he’s the only player I have held since GW1. But I am not very confident there is a clean sheet here. Victor Valdes has a blinking orange “i” next to his name and while I’d like to back my countryman Brad Guzan, there’s probably a mistake in him Valdes doesn’t make. Calum Chambers looks like he is back in the squad for those who have held him since his injury, so that’s a break for those managers. But I am not sure I’d invest in the backline if I was not already invested.
I would not be surprised if Big Sam grafts a point (even 3) from one of the two DGW games at Liverpool and then home to Tottenham. He’s clever that way – ask Chelsea and Arsenal. Tottenham have a huge FA Cup semifinal v. Chelsea a few days before the trip to Palace which may be both physically and mentally draining.
Wayne Hennessey is the one player I’d love to have in this side; even if there are no clean sheets in the cards, Hennessey is a save magnet.
The usual suspects in attack – Christian Benteke, Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend – all have their merits. “Differential” picks like Yohan Cabaye, Jason Puncheon or recent penalty-taker Luka Milivojevic (5.0 mil) seem real stretches. But the real calculation is how many goals are in this for Palace? Two 2-1 losses, i.e., two goals, probably means Benteke or the consistent contributor Zaha are worth a shot. But a 2-1 loss and a 0-1 loss probably mean investment is a waste.
So, investment really gets down to whether you see an off-the-wall result from Big Sam’s tactical approach. He will no doubt bunker in early in each fixture. But if Palace are required to chase the game or if Big Sam sees a way to counter ala Chelsea, one of these games might have two goals in it. I suspect Big Sam would take 2-2 and 1-1 and feel good about moving on. Three goals in this DGW means Benteke or Zaha are not really too risky to get into the side. So the decision for you is whether there are three goals here to assure the points are spread around. It’s a difficult call.
I am writing ahead of the Anderlecht game but United are on a roll, after perhaps their best game of the season, a 2-0 win against Chelsea. They have not lost a league match since last fall and had they been able to turn a few of their 12 draws into wins, they would be contesting the league.
The Anderlecht result plays a small part in our consideration; if United move on, Europa League fixtures remain a factor in considering United assets. And it is also important to see who picks up or might be carrying a knock ahead of DGW34. So let’s wait on the Friday presser.
The usual suspects include defensive options like Antonio Valencia, Eric Bailly and perhaps Marco Rojo who seem to be the three mainstays at this point. David de Gea was benched in GW32 for reasons not altogether clear but I am hoping his spot is not in question going forward; I brought him in for DGW34 and DGW37.
I am not sure about the United midfield as fantasy options. Rotation and lack of history (looking at you Ander Herrera) suggest the risks are too great for a punt. Perhaps a Jesse Lingard (5.6 mil) punt if you have the space for an expensive 5th mid you can sit until DGW37?
And then there is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The calculus here is whether (1) you can afford to be without the 31% owned talisman who will be wearing the armband for legions of ghost ships as well as risk-adverse active managers; and (2) you prefer Zlatan and his schedule to Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Romelu Lukaku or (3) have the transfers to do the Zlatan in-Zlatan-out dance.
Again, the key is how many goals the DGW34 holds for a team which has misfired all season. Burnley are no mugs at home and you can imagine Sean Dyche gearing his lads up for a home 0-0 and another precious point on the path to safety; one more point should do it. City are home in the second game of the DGW, and they will be coming off an FA Cup semifinal. And aren’t particularly strong defensively in any event – (cough) Claudio (cough) Bravo (cough, cough). Motivation will again be key for both Jose Mourinho and Ibrahimovic. How crucial is the City game aside from the derby aspect? Probably crucial. A win can get them within a point of fourth place City. Can Mou outsmart his old nemesis Pep Guardiola?
This looks like the kind of DGW where you could see two bore draws, 0-0, 1-1; or something more edifying for Ibrahimovic: 0-2, 1-2 away wins or a goals-draw in the derby. I would put either option as a 50/50. In other words, pure guesswork. However, if there are 2+ goals in the DGW for United, you can bet Zlatan will be involved.
So the calculus you have to make is whether he will outscore your other options (Kane, Lukaku, even Aguero) and whether you have the transfers to move him on if you don’t like him as a rest of season hold. Note: you don’t have to move Ibra immediately – Swansea visit Old Trafford in GW35.
The Engine Room Deliberations.
It is raining heavily as we watch the lads go through training through the large picture window of the engine room here at the BoulStadWest, home to Stoosher FC. The rain has lightened the mood of the lads, and it seems as though an impromptu slide tackling training session has broken out. But the amusing tableau below has done little to bring into focus our disagreements over the way forward or soften the recriminations over last week’s 40-something point performance.
And, quite frankly, the season has taken on an elegiac character amongst the management team after last week’s performance. We have nowhere to go now; our last quiet hopes put to rest. Our discussion resembles that of a group who have met at the bar after coming from the funeral home after viewing a deceased friend who in life was both kind and generous and brilliant but who lacked even the remotest common sense. A few ‘what might have been’ stories, a few funny recollections, a tear or two. Mostly, a secret breathe of relief that we remain on this good earth. In our case, to look forward to our 2017-18 fantasy football campaign.
Despite these strange deliberations or perhaps because of them, we don’t know the way forward. Half of us argue that – given we have used the WC and given the fixtures (the two teams we might consider investment in with difficult fixtures, one team who can’t score with good fixtures) – we must play ‘small ball’. A single investment to add to David de Gea and Ben Gibson will see us through say this group. With Theo Walcott’s position in peril, let’s add Zaha, call it good and move on to GW35, say these lads.
Others in the room reflect on another “nothing” DGW a few years back, when QPR and Aston Villa were the teams in question, both relegation candidates that year. Cue Charlie Austin and Christian Benteke explosions and our lack of bravery meant 20-30 points left on the table. At least in our remembering.
The devil-take-the-hindmost option is a visit to the notorious den of iniquity known as the Minus Eight Saloon. The logic, of course, is that a -4 is in reality a -2; whoever you select will get 2 extra “showed up” points at least. Three relatively safe options: Negredo, Zaha, Ibrahimovic, the latter with the armband – surely cannot fail to make up the -8 even if only one exceeds expectations.
The problem there is that the pivot to DGW36 and DGW37 becomes complex. Alexis Sanchez and especially Harry Kane remain on the Watchlist. And, of course, Negredo and Zaha are pure “one-offs” given each’s post-DGW34 schedule. Sure, Zaha and Ibra can be held through GW35, but then we have to look at DGW36-37.
Or do we? Can we hold Ibra through to the bitter end? He’s been a consistent goal scorer all season, if not as explosive as Harry Kane or as Aguero used to be. But, simply put he has two games in hand on most forwards and one game in hand on his chief rivals for our attentions. United have it all to play for. And with two Tottenham lads already to “cover” the form team and Aguero under threat from the second coming of Jesus (sorry, it was too easy), why not Ibra?
‘You are talking yourself into a rationale’ says one of the lads, as we lock up shop and repair to the pub to watch the focus of so much attention this week against Anderlecht. We’ll probably be up late Friday; and we’ll probably come down somewhere in the middle of pure prudence and the Minus Eight Saloon.
Can we afford to be prudent? Can we afford not to? We are playing for pride at this point; we do not want another finish outside the top 100,000 to sully the record. But how best to achieve that is a difficult question this week.