There is frequent talk of fixture congestion in the Premier League and the troubles it causes later in the season. This is especially true of the top players and the top teams. There are lots of matches across a number of competitions for your club and then the strong likelihood that you’ll be playing in meaningful competition for your country or be recalled for a friendly because you’re a big gate attraction to bring in the fans. For fantasy columnists like myself who don’t do this as a fulltime job, there is a similar issue that is even less predictable and it brought me to my intro for this week’s column.
My form of fixture congestion revolves around a combination of family obligations, my day job, and the encroachment of other sports on the amount of free time I have to focus on the Premier League and writing about it. This particular month has been pretty heavy in terms of my commitments between my niece and nephew’s birthdays in Philadelphia on different weekends, a lot of travel and off-site meetings for my job, and the college basketball tournament and start of Major League Soccer in the sports world. The counter-balancing factor has been the fact that the Premier League has played very few matches this month between international dates and the various cup competitions. It has been a welcome respite for me because I would have been running from obligation to obligation and doing nothing well this month if there had been a full EPL schedule in addition to the rest. [Insert your own jokes about how well I do with more time in other months here if you are inclined toward that sort of thing].
The combination of a few streams of thought – fixture congestion, the college basketball tournament, and Major League Baseball Spring Training (pre-season games in either Florida or Arizona for those not familiar) – got me thinking about how the powers-that-be in English football could answer a few long-standing issues. The issues? Fixture congestion, a winter break, the fading prestige of the League Cup, the increasing costs of season ticket costs for working class fans, and adding a 39th match and playing it abroad to give foreign fans a chance to see meaningful matches.
Here’s my solution to both in one fell swoop:
Welcome to League Cup Madness presented by Carling (or someone else with even deeper pockets). The concept is to pack up the six rounds of the Carling Cup into a three week format like the NCAA College Basketball Tournament and take it on the road from approximately January 10th through the end of the month. The tournament would rotate between warm-weather sites proximate to large markets that the Premier League is interested in building – Southern California in the US, Goa/Mumbai in India, Qatar, and somewhere in Southeast Asia that is warm with some serious stadiums. Here are the benefits:
· Season Ticket Value – Fewer undesirable tickets for English supporters to have to purchase;
· Vacation Sales – Excellent warm-weather vacation destinations for supporters who want to make the trip;
· Building International Followings – An opportunity to build local fan bases around matches that matter;
· Revitalization of the League Cup – Building excitement in a lagging property – the League Cup – by compressing the timeframe;
· Condense Fixtures – Eliminate replays because all matches are played on a neutral field;
· New Sponsor Relationships – New opportunities to sell local sponsorships to businesses that want to market to customers in those local markets as opposed to either a worldwide audience or a UK-based audience;
· Better TV Property – Improved rights fees for a consolidated tournament rather than an also-ran tournament as currently constructed;
· A Real Break – Teams that go out early or send younger squads get a nice long break to train, integrate new signings, rest up, etc. – this wouldn’t be true for ALL teams but at least teams could choose how to use the time;
· Cinderella Stories – A lesser known team with one or two “hot” players might create some really big upsets that would boost the value of the property over time;
· Launching Stars – A world-wide audience would have a chance to get to know emerging stars from smaller teams in the lower divisions as they achieve in a bigger forum than the current Carling Cup.
I know that there are potential flaws. The fixtures would be expensive for all but the most well-heeled supporters and there would be fewer “appointment” matches for lower division teams to cash in on with big teams in hallowed venues. Things like travel expenses for smaller teams would also have to be worked out as well so that they wouldn’t be forced to blow their budgets just to participate. That said, more money from a more important and more relevant League Cup competition would solve those issues. Really, what’s the downside in trying something entirely different to save a marginal property that adds little over and above the FA Cup? Foreign audiences would be happier, all but a few players would get a needed winter break, and there would be more revenue for the clubs to share.
OK, back to your regularly scheduled fantasy column.
Where we separate the match-ups that provide managers with real value from those that just look like they might provide value and those that don’t even promise that much.
· Arsenal vs. Rovers – Arsenal have tended to use International breaks to regroup after a series of poor results. Perhaps getting away from the bad mojo helps. I expect this to be no different especially with key players returning and Rovers struggling mightily down the stretch.
· Spurs @ Wigan – Spurs need to bounce back as well and the fact that Wigan is the opposition should help a lot. I should throw out the caution not to get TOO excited since Spurs have tended to underperform in these situations this season.
· Chelsea @ Stoke – Chelsea seem to be playing significantly better and while Stoke are tough, I don’t see them putting one over on the Blues. I believe in Chelsea’s momentum more than I believe in the home field advantage.
· Man United @ WHU – I’m not saying that the Hammers will win but between United’s road struggles, West Ham’s recent form and their desperation to avoid the drop I see this as being less than a bonanza for fantasy managers.
· Man City vs. Sunderland – City SHOULD be in the first category but it feels like they’re coming apart down the stretch between injuries, general unrest, and the sense that it was always a poorly constructed “team.” I’m guessing that Sunderland – the definition of an average team – will make this very competitive.
· Suarez – For an Arsenal supporter, I have really fallen hard for this guy and he’s rewarded me for doing so. If you’re already on the bandwagon then stick with it, if not, you’re late and you’d best get a seat before they all fill up.
· SEB – I have a feeling and I’m a bit taken with Wolves’ late season run to stay up. With Doyle injured on international duty Ebanks-Blake should get the start and I like his chances.
· Gyan – Hard not to be swayed by his performance against England in mid-week and his price isn’t that bad either at 7.0.
· Berbatov – Going out on a bit of a limb but with Chicharito having started in midweek in Mexico City you have to guess that he’ll be on the bench for a modest opponent. I’m not predicting a multi-goal match for Berbs but he does tend to pick on bottom-of-the-table opponents.
· RvP – You’ll just have to watch the injury updates – if he’s healthy then he’s a great pick. If not then you should probably be looking toward Arsenal’s midfield.
· Zamora – I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the returning striker who is playing at home against the most generous defense in the league. Zamora will be even more important with Dempsey likely tired from playing in mid-week and then doing the trans-Atlantic commute.
· Nani – So many midfielders to choose from but he’s been the class of the group and there’s no reason to go away from him.
· Adam – Another one that isn’t a surprise at this point but we’ve been on him all season and there’s no indication that he’s letting up regardless of the opposition.
· Hitzlsperger – I like him against the United central midfield if you’re going to take a risk on a player going up against a good team.
· VDV – Another pretty obvious choice but the obvious choices seem to be the ones with the match-ups this weekend as well. No need to get cute at the expense of productivity.
· Lamps – Feels like a PK sort of weekend for Frank.
· Luiz – He’s been great and the price isn’t too crazy.
· Kolarov – I’m not thrilled with City’s chances but he’s a great combination of attacking and potential defending points (I’m not implying he’s actually a great defender but that doesn’t matter so much for fantasy does it?).
· Smalling – Another match I’m not thrilled about from a clean sheet standpoint but for the price it is the right pick.
· Enrique – Call this SEB insurance (see above) in case it turns out that a match full of back-up forwards ends up in an ugly nil-nil draw. Enrique represents a cut-rate price to get in on potential clean sheet points.
· Cech – If you have money to spend, he’s probably the best bet. Man United have been too unreliable on the road to pay a premium price for EvdS.
· Foster – He gets a lot of points on saves and clean sheets – the only way that a ‘keeper on a bad team is the third most productive in the game. The price makes him a solid bet as does the match-up with a Bolton team minus their creative central midfielder in Stuart Holden.
· Schwarzer – Fulham are tough defensively and even more so at Craven Cottage so I like the value of him at home for 4.7 if you’re looking for a value pick.
· Suarez – He’s hot and the match-up is a strong one with WBA the second leakiest defense in the league.
· Zamora – I’m liking this pick more and more as I write.
· VDV – I’m seeing a return to the goals as Spurs look to capitalize on City’s flagging form.