Soccer

Value Shopping in English Premier League

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Value is in the eye of the beholder when constructing a soccer club.

When it comes to defenders and goalkeepers Arsene Wenger prefers to shop at the European version of WalMart.

Sir Alex Ferguson, being Scottish and all, loves a bargain. His penny-pinching ways sometimes work with a guy like Chicharito, a little less so when trolling the Portuguese third division for former homeless players like Bebe.

Chelsea and Manchester City use the largess of their owners to eschew value for a blank-check star-chasing system. Buy enough, some will stick.

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Liverpool's Fenway-tinged braintrust said they would attempt to bring a "Moneyball" approach to soccer, then break the bank on Andy Carroll after offloading Fernando Torres to Chelsea.

And Harry Redknapp never met a deal he didn't like, the more the merrier, right?

The rest of the Premier League, for better or worse, is shopping at the Wendy's 99 cents menu, trying to turn crispy chicken sandwiches and sour cream and chive baked potatoes into chicken Kiev and potatoes au gratin. Not easy.

***

The other day I posed if they handed out the award for 2010-11 Premier League MVP honors, who would it go to? There isn't a clear candidate.

Better yet here's a more fun, slightly different question. If you were running a Premier League club and there was a fantasy draft where every current player in the league was available, who would you take? Who would you build your team around for the next two, three seasons?

I tried this last year. My list is somewhat, okay extremely, laughable.

It was harder this time around. Despite the rise of Manchester City, the same "star" players we've had in the Prem since around 2006 have remained relatively unchanged, aside from Cristiano Ronaldo's departure to Real Madrid.

Take a look at 2007-2008 Champions League semifinals, composed of three English clubs: Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. Three years later and the core of those teams remain intact. Although Liverpool has gone through a massive facelift it still has Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Jamie Carragher and Martin Škrtel.

Torres, naturally, started for Los Reds that day. He's now at Chelsea, which still has Petr Čech, Ashley Cole, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and John Terry from its starting XI on April 30, 2008. Manchester United, which remarkably held Barcelona scoreless over its two-legged semifinal still has its entire squad from intact, aside from Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and (wait for it) Mikaël Silvestre.

That's my way of saying, although the Premier League has been as competitive and unpredictable as its ever been this 2010-11 season, it's not because of an overflowing abundance of new world stars. The marquee players are still guys like Wayne Rooney, Drogba, Gerrard, Torres and Tevez. When you think of the Premier League, or when you cut a promo for it, these are still the faces you show in a 15-second clip.

***

 

2010-11 EPL Player Value Rankings

Attributes taken into consideration are: age, track record, durability. If this player was my best talent, could I win a trophy? Does this guy make his teammates better? Does my opponent lose sleep the night before trying to figure out ways to stop him? Would having this guy on the field make planning for the rest of the match that much easier?

Again, this is a mock hypothetical, given a choice of any player currently in the EPL for the next two, three seasons, who would it be?

Toughest omissions:

* Michael Essien, Chelsea -- Valuable for his sheer versitility and constant, quality professionalism. The last two years, though, he's been in-and-out of the lineup. Essien is a very good, borderline elite player, except you have to wonder how influential he'd be as your No. 1 guy. As it stands he's the perfect complimentary guy on a talent-rich roster like Chelsea.

* Jordan Henderson, Sunderland -- The No. 10 at Sunderland flashed a lot of potential early in the season, but Steve Bruce seems very cautious in his use of the 20-year-old. Is he a dynmaic edge-of-the-area poacher like Lampard or the next Michael Carrick? Henderson's Sunderland teammate Asamoah Gyan looks like a talent, too, but a guy to build an entire club around? Steve Bruce seems to be trying it. I wouldn't.

* Ashley Young, Aston Villa -- Young is a bit of an enigma. If he's your top guy, your club's ceiling is at the upper echelon on the mid-table. He's talented on the ball and an improving scorer, but if you put him on a bigger team would he need to see the ball too much to be as effective?

* Andy Carroll, Liverpool -- Easily would've made the Top 10 if he'd played a few games for Liverpool since his sensational Jan. 31 transfer. Everything you'd want in a center forward, just not the biggest track record. If I do this list again next year Carroll or Liverpool's other big signing -- Luis Suarez -- project to be on it.

* Javier Hernandez, Manchester United -- Lethally efficient in front of goal. Could you build a successful team around him, though? Probably not. A very nice hood ornament for a good club, which is actually a compliment.

* Rafael van der Vaart, Tottenham -- Yes, if the Dutch ace was your best player you could win a major trophy. Problem is, could he stand up to the rigors of the English game over the course of 10 months? At best he seems like a 60-75 minute player, a great one, but the ability to stay in the starting lineup is very important. You can't build around a guy who is always dinged up for dealing with a "niggling" injury.

* Scott Parker, West Ham United -- Lived his life as the soup kitchen Frank Lampard/Steven Gerrard. Valid question, though Parker is 30, who would you rather have the next four years, Parker -- with about one-third of the games played or Gerrard and Lampard -- with their massive game log, exacerbated by international duty?

* Darren Bent, Aston Villa -- Wherever he goes he'll score you goals. Important, meaningful goals? That's why he's down here.

* Roger Johnson, Birmingham City -- Just a straight-up solid defender. Not exactly "world class," but Birmingham City did just win the Carling Cup with his inspired play in front of Ben Foster. In a mythical EPL Fantasy auction draft, you'd probably throw out 50-60 names before Johnson, but he's under-the-radar valuable to Birmingham and Alex McLeish.

* Clint Dempsey, Fulham -- I'll say this. If there's a player who's put more on the line this season in the Premier League standpoint from a pure effort, hustle standpoint, I'd be surprised. Dempsey, at times, has willed himself to goals by out-jumping, out-muscling opponents. His offense has kept Fulham from the bottom of the table. Still, you have to wonder what he'd be able to do at a bigger club. Could he be the No. 1 option at a Top Four club? That why he's outside the Top 10.

* Tim Cahill, Everton -- Call Cahill the Aussie Dempsey, minus the rap career, but with the arm sleeve tattoos. He's not getting any younger, not his fault.

* David Silva/Yaya Toure, Manchester City -- Simply not enough time to judge these two in the English game. Both have had their moments, though not always within concert of each other.

* Samir Nasri, Arsenal -- Any team in the world would take the Frenchman and find a way to get him on the field. He carried the Gunners without Cesc Fabregas. My only issue is durability. As the primary option would he take the rigors week-in, week-out?

* Nani, Manchester United -- Very weird, that he's probably the EPL Player of the Season, yet would you want to build your team around him? Even for all the goals he creates, he's a very individualistic player. Skilled? Yes. You wonder, if you dropped him on a midtable team with less talent around him, would he be as effective? It's hard to be the alpha dog of a team at Nani's size, unless you're as consistently transcendent as Lionel Messi.

The Old Age Home:

Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard -- Drogba and Lampard are 32. Gerrard is an old 30. Would you still want to build your team around these three? Could they still carry the water for you week-in, week-out? Of the three, Gerrard still might have the most left, but this year he's been relatively nondescript in a transitional season for Liverpool. All three are still talents, again, it's not their fault Father Time is catching up with them.

The Mental Hospital:

Mario Balotelli, Manchester City -- He could be the best forward in the world, or he could end up injured or in jail or in a revival of the "Rodman World Tour." About the only certainty with Balotelli is you know he'll be immaculately groomed and coiffed ... and probably feuding with teammates, his manager, the fans or the stadium grass. Say this for Balotelli, he's never kicked an injured owl off the field.

The E.R.

Robin van Persie, Arsenal -- If they ever start a "Soccer Tropes" website, a la the classic Television Tropes site, then van Persie injuring himself on an insane mid-air ninja kick goal, with his foot flying through the air around a defender to poke it in would be that site's Jump the Shark. So good. So brittle.

Buyer Beware:

Fernando Torres, Chelsea -- Will Chelsea end up like the residents of Blaine, Missouri, waiting and waiting and waiting for the proverbial Guffman to arrive? That wait being for the return of Torres' missing form? It's too early to write him off, but can we all keep waiting and waiting for him to return to what he once was? When does a dip in form become something more permanent?

Easiest omission:

Bebe.

The Top 10

10. Charlie Adam, Blackpool -- Despite looking more like he's 35, the gap-toothed Blackpool captain is only 25. He does have the pedigree of a "big" club, spending the first six years of his career under the Rangers umbrella. So why do I put him in the top 10? For one, his influence. With him in the middle of the park pinging passes, Blackpool can beat anyone in the league. Without him, they get stomped. Factor in his precise delivery from the corner flag and Adam is pumps up his value alone. There is a reason Liverpool wanted him in January. You seemingly could build a team around him the middle of the field. It would probably be middle of the pack, but still ...

9. Joe Hart, Manchester City -- Head-to-head, I'd take Pepe Reina for one match. Hart, though, is only 23 and has the durable 6-foot-5 frame you want in a keeper. Hart's biggest weakness is the occasional mental error. Still, if you're taking a keeper to build around, I'd go with Hart. Chances are, of course, in this hypothetical keepers would be undervalued and go later in the draft of players.

8. Nemanja Vidic, Manchester United -- Five years of service at Manchester United and the club have won the Premier League three times, the League Cup three times and one Champions League. He might be getting up there in age at 29, but he's bounced back from last year's upper body injury. Still, for my money, the best defensive bedrock in England, especially with his nemesis -- Torres -- completely out of form.

7. Lucas, Liverpool -- Is lateral passing and intercepting balls a sexy trait? No, not really. From borderline laughingstock status, Lucas has blossomed into a midfield bedrock for Liverpool. The kind of steady, reliable performer managers dream about. The biggest flaw in his game is he's not a poacher from distance (one goal in over 100 matches for Liverpool). If you're looking for that defensive shield, link-up type midfielder, there's not much better going forward.

6. Wayne Rooney, Manchester United -- Is he back to what he was? Is he still one of the world's best? Rooney is still Rooney. Under this hypothetical, you'd have to take him. He's still a game-changer and a match-winner. Even with his prolonged goal drought, he's up to eight EPL goals this season.

5. Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal -- The prototype in the middle of the field going forward in England. Beside the constant flirtation with Barcelona, you have to wonder how long he can keep going with more-and-more injuries. He's only 23 with over 200 games played for Arsenal. He's about to hit his prime seasons, but maybe they came early. Still, for whatever warts you want to pick in his game, Fabregas is still about as valuable as it gets in the Prem at the moment, though I'm not sure if he's been as great this season, living off his reputation a little. In the games he's missed this year, Arsenal hasn't missed a beat.

4. David Luiz, Chelsea -- Small sample size, true. Luiz does have a pedigree built up at Benfica and has looked great at Chelsea. This is a pick on potential, since a heady central defender who has great passing vision and an elan going forward is an absolute rarity in England. A year from now, it wouldn't stun me if he goes right to the top of this list if his play from February continues.

3. Carlos Tevez, Manchester City -- He's done it now at West Ham, Manchester United and Manchester City. Beyond influential. So long as his heart isn't longing for his family in Buenos Aires, you know Tevez is going to go out and get you goals, regardless of which team you stick him on. That's proven value. One guy you know that is just a soccer player regardless of the setting of the names on the front and back of the shirt.

2. Jack Wilshere, Arsenal -- Did I personally take the time to make fun of his tears after Arsenal lost the Carling Cup? You bet I did. That doesn't mean I don't respect his game. Does Wilshere's face remind me of an unholy amalgamation of 80s villains Roy Stalin, Biff Tannern and Johnny Lawerence? Indeed it does. That doesn't mean he's not a skilled little S.O.B. In some quarters its a dirty word, but where I sit being labeled the next Paul Scholes is high praise. Is he a little too young, at 19, to build a team around? He's probably worth the gamble. Am I possibly drinking the Kool Aid of the English press? Perhaps. Hate to say it, but the little jerk is growing on me. (And hey, since this value thing is about the Prem, you know English players would inherently be overvalued.)

1. Gareth Bale, Tottenham -- Any coincidence Bale, at the age of 21, puts it all together and spearheads Tottenham's charge into the Champions League? (Yes, I'm acutely aware it does seem silly ranking him No. 1 while he's in the midst of a fitness test to play against AC Milan on Wednesday.) Does ranking him No. 1 mean he's the best in England? No. He just might be the most valuable though, since there simply aren't a lot of guys in the whole world with his left-footed skill set. You can find forwards to score, or midfielders to control pace or big, rugged defenders. A wide left player who can turn matches on their head by running at opponents, or cutting inside? Throw in his free kick ability, and there's no wonder every club in Europe wants a piece of the Welsh teetoller.

(So that's the list. Gimmick columm, I'll admit it. Didn't exactly love writing it. Started cranking it out, four hours later this is what happened. Didn't want to simply hit "delete." It is what it is. Your feedback -- aka complaints -- more than welcome.)

***

SAF STFU -- In light of Sir Alex Ferguson's possible ban from the FA for his post-match comments about the referees in the Chelsea game, you have to wonder, could a guy as legendary as him have coached in America? Could he just dictate terms to the league officials and the media? NBA commish David Stern never would allow it.

Does anyone in sports have thinner skin than Ferguson? He's done so many great things, but his immaturity with stuff like this is a black eye. Now he's banning the club's official television outlets from interviews? What a sore loser. Still doubt the English FA has guts to ban him from the touchline. The English are much more comfortable of an overt class system, aren't they?

Toure, stimmed out -- Who knows what Kolo Toure took to face a possibly long doping ban? Seems like the process in England or the rest of Europe is shrouded in much more secrecy than the states. Perhaps we're just used to it more.

Although he's the club captain, Toure hasn't been great during his time with Manchester City. Wouldn't feel too bad for the club either, considering they spent all that money on Jolean Lescott not too long ago. There are worse things in this world than a Vincent Kompany/Lescott pairing. Roberto Mancini could even try Micah Ricards inside. City have options. Don't cry for them, or Toure, who can take the time on the sidelines to cultivate his sweet box fade.

Round 29 Picks:

Nondescript Saturday. Great Sunday slate.

Saturday:

* Birmingham City v. West Brom -- (Live, ESPN2, 7:45 a.m.) All hail Alex McLeish. Europa League or bust for Birmingham! Oh, there's that pesky relegation scrum, with the Blues hovering two points above the drop zone. How Birmingham reacts from winning the Carling Cup, if there's any hangover bears watching. One big reason -- pun intended -- Birmingham probably survives is that they're figuring out that opponents have no idea how to deal with the 6-foot-8 frame of Nikola Zigic, who seems to be the biggest wild card in the Premier League since Rory Delap's long throws. Eventually defenders will figure out the big Serb, but until then he's causing havoc. West Brom has a little bit of a pulse thanks to some late goals from Carlos Vela, including a clearly offside equalizer vs. Stoke City on Monday. ... Birmingham City 2, West Brom 0

* Bolton v. Aston Villa -- Owen Coyle knows what he's doing. Last year he grabs Jack Wilshere on loan. This year Daniel Sturridge. Is he the Young Lion whisperer? Could be. Aston Villa pretty much pissed away its chances in the FA Cup Wednesday at Manchester City, leaving Stewart Downing and Ashley Young on the bench until the 71st minute and it was 3-0. Smart. Really smart. On the plus side Michael Bradley got his first Villa start. Who cares if they lost? U-S-A! U-S-A! ... Bolton 1, Aston Villa 1

* Arsenal v. Sunderland -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Is this a trap game for the Gunners? Carling Cup choke, the Leyton Orient shit-stomp, this game and then Barcelona on Tuesday. All without Cesc Fabregas and now Robin van Persie. Mental fortitude and grit aren't exactly traits we associate with Arsenal, so if the Gunners pull out of this stretch alive in the Champions League and only four points off Manchester United it would have to be considered a win, despite the epic failure at the hands of Birmingham at Wembley Stadium. Sunderland's new-look African brigade could cause Arsenal trouble, especially if Stéphane Sessègnon decides to bring his high-energy style of play to the Emirates. He, along with Asamoah Gyan and Kieran Richardson could give Arsenal all they can handle, assuming Sunderland doesn't self destruct defensively, as the club has been wont to do lately. ... Arsenal 2, Sunderland 1

* Newcastle United v. Everton -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) Call this one the middle class rut match of the week. ... Newcastle 1, Everton 0

* Fulham v. Blackburn Rovers -- Nightmare scenario: Jermaine Jones "De Jongs" Clint Dempsey. ... Fulham 1, Blackburn 0

* West Ham United v. Stoke City -- It's taken almost two-thirds of the year, but Avram Grant seems to have settled on a lineup for the Hammers. If James Tompkins and Mathew Upson can stay on the field together it solidifies the West Ham defense, while the midfield of Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Gary O'Neil and Thomas Hitzleberger isn't out-and-out terrible. If Demba Ba and Carlton Cole can do anything up front, survival isn't out of the question. And if West Ham were to get relegated, you'd have to think every other club in England would make a bid for Parker, right? Stoke City has come off the proverbial boil and aren't very interesting at the moment aside from if they field a starting XI with everyone over 6-foot tall. That would be some kind of record, right? ... West Ham 2, Stoke City 1

* Manchester City v. Wigan Athletic -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) Yaya Toure is a guy who I haven't cut much slack this season, but the last month he seems to be coming into his own as a hard-charging creative engine, with an uncanny ability to lay deep passes from the midfield. He's not an issue. Accommodating Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko is an issue. It's nice that City can swoop in and buy tons of marquee players, but in building a side unless you can convince players to swallow their egos, you probably need some role players or guys willing to sacrifice playing time for the good of the team. City should spent its riches trying to grow a clone of Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The less said of Wigan at this point, the better. ... Manchester City 3, Wigan 1

Sunday:

* Liverpool v. Manchester United -- (Live, FSC, 8:30 a.m.) This match is kind of a big deal, right? Kind of?

Liverpool should welcome Andy Carroll into the mix. Figure a rousing reception at Anfield. Maybe even a couple Phil Collins techno-remixes before the game. Less certain is the health of Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger and Raul Meireles.

Manchester United are without Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, meaning Wes Brown is forced into the starting defense. Not good. Oddly enough, Brown clocks in at 6-foot-1, while Carroll is a mere 6-foot-3, but when you think of them standing next to each other doesn't it seem like a Spud Webb vs. Gheorghe Muresan scenario?

With so many question marks heading into this match, it's hard to get a good gauge. We can guess than Kenny Dalglish won't get sucked into any Ferguson mind games.

The talent level between these two is closing. When healthy Liverpool can go man-for-man with United. Right now, though, United still have match winners with Rooney and Chicharito. Liverpool's injuries in key spots might leave it up to Dirk Kuyt or Suarez to pull something out late. Hard match to figure. ... Liverpool 1, Manchester United 2

* Wolves v. Tottenham -- (Live, FSC, 11 a.m.) Wolves won't be able to play recent inspiration Jamie O'Hara against his parent club, limiting Mick McCarthy's team, which hasn't lost its fighting spirit. Not sure how Harry Redknapp plays this one with the AC Milan return leg three days later. Spurs were winning games on adrenaline alone, but seem to be wearing down a bit. With Rafael van der Vaart laid up, the inefficiency of Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko has been crippling. A thought, if Wolves are relegated Kevin Doyle would be a useful player for a club like Tottenham. He's durable, hard working and does the dirty work isolated alone up top. He's not a game-changer in Europe like, say, Luis Fabiano but he'd be very helpful in the squad. When Doyle doesn't score, he still helps Wolves by winning balls and fouls, when Defoe misses, misses and misses some more he doesn't do anything useful for Spurs. ... Wolves 1, Spurs 1

Monday:

* Blackpool v. Chelsea -- (Live, ESPN2, 3 p.m.) If Blackpool can get a result here, with both Charlie Adam and D.J. Campbell suspended, then the Tangerines season truly is a fairy tale. Somehow Ian Holloway's team has won nine games this year, despite allowing 55 goals in 28 matches. Yes, this season has been nothing if not unpredictable, but if we're ever going to see Chelsea return to its 6-0 ways and a Fernando Torres breakout, its here. ... Blackpool 1, Chelsea 4

Last round: 5-4
Season: 118-157