Well it has been a blistering, exciting, fun first half of the season, hasn’t it? Plenty has happened as expected, but thankfully there has also been much that has gone completely off the rails to keep things interesting. Let’s delve into the fray with some key takeaways from the first half of the 2017/18 fantasy Premier League season that may help explain why you’re doing well (or poorly) and how you may be able to position your fantasy side for success in the second half.
1. Cottonopolis is the Center of the Premier League Universe
Last season, it was all about London Town, as Chelsea took the title, and Tottenham finished second. With respect to goal differential, Spurs won that distinction with Chelsea next up, so there was no disputing that the pair of London teams truly represented the best of the best.
But now you can get out ancient Smiths, Stone Roses and Oasis CDs, because Manchester is back to being adored! (If you’ve never heard the song, there’s a very slow build, be patient, it’s worth the wait... although the video is very, very dated)
Manchester City is enjoying a season for the ages, and while second place Manchester United needs an extremely powerful telescope to see the backs of the Citizens, United’s position is nothing to scoff at, particularly given their impressive move up from the sixth spot last season. There’s a reason that Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho are so well-respected in the footballing world.
If you had any measure of fantasy success in 2016/17, surely you had several among Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, Marcos Alonso, Eden Hazard, Pedro, and Diego Costa... plus Spurs’ Hugo Lloris, Kyle Walker, Christian Eriksen, Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min. Generally speaking, those players’ prices have risen, while their production has dipped. Meanwhile, early investment in Mancunian players this season has paid off nicely as Sky Blues and Red Devils occupy more than their fair share of elite fantasy real estate. They’re doing it in somewhat different ways, though...
2. Manchester City Has Replaced Tottenham as the Monsters of Midfield
Last season, Tottenham forward Harry Kane was a vital part of fantasy line-ups. At the same time, it was also absolutely essential to have at least two among Tottenham’s trio of magical midfielders, especially in Official. After all, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min combined for a staggering 40 goals and 31 assists!!!
At the same time, the four big Manchester City midfielders — Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, David Silva and Raheem Sterling — combined for 22 goals and 34 assists. The pair of Citizens’ forwards, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, were significantly more attractive on balance, together notching 27 goals and 7 assists, particularly given that Jesus arrived in mid-season, making only 10 appearances.
This season, production from the Tottenham midfielders has declined sharply to a total of 13 scores and 9 helpers. Meanwhile, the Citizens’ quartet has absolutely surged up to a tally of 29 goals and 28 assists together, becoming fantasy midfield musts.
3. Phil Jones (and Nemanja Matic) Have Made United’s Defense Elite
It’s already fairly well-known that midfielder N’Golo Kante is instrumental to the success of Chelsea’s defense, and that midfielder Paul Pogba is vital to Manchester United’s offense... largely via defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic allowing Pogba to push forward. And of course, having Matic patrol in front of the back line is a boon to the defense as well. But one thing that I don’t think has gotten enough attention is just how essential defender Phil Jones has been to the brilliance of United’s defense this season.
Jones has started and made it to at least 60 minutes in 13 games this season. In those, United has conceded six goals (an average of 0.46 goals per game) and kept nine clean sheets (69% of the time). In the other six games, the Red Devils have allowed eight goals (1.33 gpg) with only one clean sheet (17%).
Perhaps the Huddersfield game is most illustrative. Jones went out injured in the 23rd minute, replaced by Victor Lindelof. Aaron Mooy scored in the 28th minute, followed by a second from Laurent Depoitre in the 33rd... that’s TWO GOALS (!) in 10 MINUTES (!!) from HUDDERSFIELD (!!!) immediately following Jones’ departure.
Prior to this season, the most fantasy points David De Gea had ever compiled in a season was 142 in Official and 221 in Fantrax. This year he has gaudy totals of 100 and 210 at the halfway point, ranking a clear #1 in both formats for the keeper position. Antonio Valencia, similarly, had always been a good-but-not-great fantasy option, having never surpassed 144 points in Official. This season, Valencia has 94 at the halfway point.
If Jones can stay mostly healthy for the rest of the season, not only will he remain a wonderful fantasy asset himself, but he will also be extremely valuable regarding the fortunes of De Gea, Valencia and company.
4. Something is Rottenham in Tottenham
Tottenham finished third in 2015/16 but had the best goal differential. Spurs took second in 2016/17, while again boasting the top goal differential. If you were looking for that trend to continue, Tottenham would be in first place, with the best differential, right now. Instead, the squad has faded back to fifth place place with the fifth best differential. Spurs are only one point behind Liverpool in the all-important race for fourth place, and both Arsenal and Burnley are nipping at their heels.
It seems that there is a bit of a rancid stench in North London, along with a long list of ready excuses:
- success in Champions League, taking energy and focus away from the Premier League,
- moving from White Hart Lane to a temporary Wembley home,
- the injury absences of offensive midfielder Erik Lamela and wing back Danny Rose to start this season,
- in-season injury to defensive midfielder Wictor Wanyama and defender Toby Alderweireld,
- the departure by Kyle Walker to Manchester City and the inability of incoming transfers Serge Aurier and Davinson Sanchez to adapt smoothly,
- the big stars’ having their heads turned by whispers from mega clubs in Spain and elsewhere,
- Spurs spent roughly the same amount as they cashed over the summer, whereas the other “Big Six” squads were in clear buy mode, focused on bettering themselves with big-name, big-money additions (Danilo, Ederson, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva and Walker for City; Victor Lindelof, Romelu Lukaku and Matic for United; Bakayoko, Drinkwater, Morata, Rudiger, and Zappacosta for Chelsea; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mo Salah for Liverpool; and Alexandre Lacazette for Arsenal).
Though Spurs’ stars have hurt fantasy managers who invested in them hoping for bigger and brighter things, it’s possible that they (other than Kane, who is carrying the team on his back) will be able to turn things around in the second half... but it’s rarely as simple as flipping a switch.
With Premier League title hopes already dashed, the Champions’ League paradox will persist: Tottenham wants to progress in the major European contest to improve its ability to attract top talent, but with such a slim chance of winning that, finishing in England’s top four is absolutely vital. Falling short could result in an exodus of stars to other, bigger teams. In that realm of thought, fantasy managers with Spurs’ assets may hope that Juventus dispatch them quickly so that Tottenham would focus fully on league play.
5. Arsenal Has Not Quite Benefited from Europa League as Expected
With sixth place Manchester United winning Europa League last season and giving the Premier League five entrants into Champions League, Arsenal (fifth place in 2016/17) is the only “Big Six” team playing in the also-ran European competition. While Arsenal clearly would prefer to play in the Champions League, it expected to see its Premier League fortunes benefit from the lack thereof, much in the way that Chelsea was aided by being able to rest its star players in 2016/17 following a disastrous 2015/16 Premier League campaign.
The other English team in Europa, Everton, clearly would have been better off without the distraction, which proved too much for an overwhelmed Ronald Koeman as the Toffees struggled to mesh following major roster turnover. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger has advanced through Europa League with second stringers, which has allowed the first team players to relax, avoid injury, and focus on the Premier League.
However, Alexis Sanchez (24 goals and 10 assists last season, compared to five and three so far this campaign) and Mesut Ozil (from eight and nine in 2016/17 to four and five) have not enjoyed an uptick as many had hoped. Instead, they’ve taken a back seat to newcomer Alexandre Lacazette (eight goals, two assists) on offense, while fellow fresh face Sead “The Tank” Kolasinac has paid off nicely for fantasy managers on the defensive end, on par with Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal. Dismayingly, Arsene Wenger has benched the Tank recently.
Ultimately, despite being able to rest the XI, things have actually gotten slightly worse. The Europa League rest has not enabled Arsenal to push up to first place... or even fourth place. Instead, the Gunners sit in sixth place. That’s a mere point behind fourth place Liverpool on one end, and only two ahead of seventh place Burnley on the other. So a fourth place finish is within sight... as are fifth, sixth and seventh.
All five Premier League teams in the Champions League made it through to the knockout stage, which may help Arsenal in the second half as it attempts to move up to the top four. If all or most of the CL quintet make it to the quarterfinals, Arsenal’s edge will grow.
However, what looks to be an advantage could turn on its head. If a top four league finish remains in doubt, Arsenal could be forced to play its first stringers in Europa to replicate Manchester United’s feat from last year: Get a back door invite into the Champions League by winning the Europa League at the expense of Premiership position.
And what if Manchester City is the only team to progress to the quarterfinals of Champions League? That would leave four other top-tier Premier League teams plenty rested and focused on the battle for qualification slots.
With so many possible permutations, it will be interesting to see if Wenger is able to keep resting his stars. Can the Europa League end up working in the team’s favor? If you have Arsenal players in your fantasy teams, that's certainly what you are hoping for. Otherwise, you could see your investments allocated to operations that earn you no profit.
6. Burnley is as Close as You’re Going to Get to a Cinderella Story
We all remember Leicester’s 2015/16 epic title run fondly. Why? Because things like that happen about once in a generation. The Clarets are not going to replicate the miraculous title run from the Foxes, but Burnley is mounting a legitimate outside challenge for a Champions League spot, and that’s pretty gosh darn magical in its own right. It’s as good as you’re going to get for a while.
The big difference, of course, is that Leicester offered brilliant fantasy bargains all over the pitch in 2015/16, from the offensive (Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez) to defensive (Kasper Schmeichel, Christian Fuchs, Robert Huth, Wes Morgan and Danny Simpson) end. Especially with Robbie Brady injured now, Burnley hangs its hat entirely on the defensive side, allowing the fourth fewest goals overall (15).
Despite missing the first three and a half games (before first choice Tom Heaton got injured), keeper Nick Pope ranks second in points among keepers for both Official and Fantrax, behind only De Gea. Among defenders, Stephen Ward, James Tarkowski and Ben Mee all rank in the top 20 in Official and in the top 10 in Fantrax.
Burnley is going to need every break to go its way if it truly hopes to finish in the top four or really just to crack the top six. But even if that is not in the cards, investment in the Clarets’ defensive assets is certainly not a bad idea, particularly in Official where they are still quite affordable. And purely from a fan’s perspective, they certainly make a fine underdog story.
7. Mohamed Salah Has Upended the Dismal Serie A Transfer Story
In the summer prior to the 2016/17 season, I investigated how offensive players had fared recently when transferring from various leagues around the world (as well as from fellow Premier League teams) into the league for their first season in Britain.
Of the major international leagues, players from Italy’s top league fared the worst. It wasn’t just in comparison to the La Liga, the Prem itself, the Bundlesiga, and Ligue 1, but even players from the less heralded Dutch Eredivisie panned out better... and sadly, it wasn’t even close. Ricardo Alvarez, Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini, Gaston Ramirez, Erik Lamela, Dani Osvaldo, and Gaston Ramirez combined for 63 goals and 28 assists in their last Italian seasons, then followed that up with 10 scores plus 5 helpers combined in their first Premier League seasons. That’s no minor falloff -- it’s absolutely falling off the cliff.
Last season, the hope was that Paul Pogba would break the spell after coming over from Juventus as the most expensive transfer in Premier League history. Instead, unfortunately, he was just another in the long line of aforementioned busts, falling from 8 goals plus 12 assists in Italy to 5 and 4 at Man United. Not as bad a fade as his predecessors, but still a far cry from what the United brass had envisioned, given the monumental cash splash. (Happily, Pogba has since flourished despite an injury- and suspension-shortened sophomore season, with three goals and five assists in only nine games.)
So I was naturally wary when Mo Salah came over to Liverpool following a sensational 15 goal, 11 assist 2016/17 season with AS Roma. Making things even more reminiscent of Pogba, Salah had briefly been a Premier League player years prior (with Chelsea, a la Pogba with ManU), before leaving to find success in Italy. Why bother getting excited? Wouldn’t Salah suffer a similar falloff as Pogba and the other Italian league imports before him in recent history?
No, no he would not. And that is a tremendous understatement. Salah has been simply brilliant from the get go, needing no time to acclimate and dominate, lighting the league on fire with 15 goals (tied for most with Harry Kane) along with 3 assists in half a season. He's on the short list for league Player of the Year, and he’s immediately become a must-have in fantasy rosters. I may rightly still be a bit reserved when the next Serie A refugee comes to the Premier League, but I will certainly not be dismissive.
8. Christian Benteke Has to be the Least Valuable Fantasy Player
Salah may well be the most valuable player so far. As for the least valuable, I’m going to turn elsewhere, but while actually considering someone who is in the same company as Manchester City’s star striker duo of Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero in one major category. That’s good, right? Um, no, it’s not. It’s actually very, very bad, at least when taken in full context.
One of the saddest and funniest statistics that the Premier League keeps is “Big Chances Missed.” (Seriously, look it up, it’s real, it’s on the official website!) Take a look at the chart below with the top 13 players (top 10 extended due to a four-way tie at #10) in big chances missed:
Big Chances Missed
|RANK||PLAYER||TEAM||BIG CHANCES MISSED|
|RANK||PLAYER||TEAM||BIG CHANCES MISSED|
|1||Gabriel Jesus||Man. City||11|
|3||Christian Benteke||Crystal Palace||10|
|4||Sergio Aguero||Man. City||9|
|8||Romelu Lukaku||Man. United||8|
For most players, a statistic like big chances misses isn’t really particularly noteworthy. The best players score some great goals, and they also miss some easy chances, that comes with the territory. But for Benteke, it’s an artistic form of misery that is all his own. Look at the chart of the same players in further context, taking into account goals scored along with the resultant efficiency ratio (goals scored divided by the sum of goals scored plus big chances missed).
|RANK||POS||PLAYER||TEAM||GOALS||BIG CHANCES MISSED||EFFICIENCY|
|RANK||POS||PLAYER||TEAM||GOALS||BIG CHANCES MISSED||EFFICIENCY|
|3||F||Sergio Aguero||Man. City||12||9||57%|
|4||F||Romelu Lukaku||Man. United||10||8||56%|
|9||F||Gabriel Jesus||Man. City||8||11||42%|
|13||F||Christian Benteke||Crystal Palace||1||10||9%|
Jesus leads the league in big chances missed with 11, but he has scored eight goals, leaving him an efficiency ratio of 42%. Not great, but not horrible. He actually fits in close to the middle in the range of 33% to 65% for all players other than Benteke. The Palace striker is stranded all by himself on an island of misfit toys with an obscenely low ratio of 9%.
On top of that, there’s a reason why I included positions in the second chart. Most of the players with lower efficiency percentages are midfielders, who are generally not expected to be as precise with their finishing as forwards. Of the three midfielders, two (Watford’s Richardson and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey) were in the 33% - 36% range; the only forward in that range was Newcastle United’s Joselu at 33%. Benteke was not only worse than the other strikers, he was also worse than the midfielders. (Salah was an outlier among the three midfielders at 58%, which may help explain why he is classified as a midfielder in Official but as a forward in Fantrax.)
For those brave (or crazy) enough to have Benteke in their teams, the Belgian has been absolute fantasy poison. Any time you’d rather not have your forward take a penalty kick since you’re more worried he’s going to miss it and give you negative points than make it and give you positive returns, that probably tells you all you need to know.
You never know, though, Benteke could always explode with a great second half. He does possess a past track record as a Premier League goal scorer, having netted at least 10 goals in each of four seasons and at least 15 in two of those. Maybe he kickstarted things by scoring his first goal of the season in week 18 at Leicester, rebounding nicely from the penalty kick debacle against Bournemouth.
9. Several New Managers Have Made Major Impacts
Several downtrodden teams have changed managers in the first half of the season. It could easily be argued that there was nowhere to go but up, but that’s not quite true (as we will see). These teams could have stayed in the same dark place... or even gotten worse. In a couple of cases, their fortunes have sharply improved, and on balance most of the moves have paid dividends:
- Crystal Palace sacked Frank De Boer after being in last place with four losses — and no goals scored — in the first four games. Roy Hodgson has moved the Eagles up to 16th place with four wins in 15 games. Getting Wilfried Zaha back healthy certainly helped, along with a keeper switch from Wayne Hennessy to Julian Speroni.
- 18th place Leicester gave the pink slip to Craig Shakespeare after notching only one win in eight. Following a victory in Michael Appleton’s single appearance as caretaker manager, former Southampton boss Claude Puel has shepherded the Foxes up to eighth place owing to a stretch of five victories across ten games. Riyad Mahrez has flourished, with four goals and two assists in that time.
- Everton was also mired in the 18th spot, notching only two wins in their opening nine affairs under Ronald Koeman. The team perked up to 13th place thanks to earning two wins in five games for caretaker manager David Unsworth. Since then, Sam Allardyce has brought the club further up to ninth place with an inspired run of three victories (and two draws) in five contests. Leighton Baines, Michael Keane and Oumar Niasse have become forgotten men, while Wayne Rooney, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Dominic Calvin-Lewis, Jonjoe Kenny, Mason Holgate, Cuca Martinez and Jordan Pickford have roared into fantasy prominence.
- Slaven Bilic was finally put out of our misery for 18th place West Ham after taking just two wins from eleven games. David Moyes has slightly improved things, ticking up to the 17th spot thanks to a turnaround featuring two conquests in eight tries, tightening the defense with highlights including a 1-0 victory over Chelsea as well as a scoreless draw with Arsenal. Joe Hart, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Andy Carroll have practically disappeared into the witness protection program. Adrian, Angelo Ogbonna and Marko Arnautovic have been hogging the spotlight.
- 17th place West Brom showed the door to Tony Pulis, who had won only two out of twelve games, followed by a draw under caretaker Gary Megson. With no wins in six, Alan Pardew has actually ridden Albion down to 19th place.
Can those teams who have improved keep it up? Could a similar surge happen for Swansea which just sacked Paul Clement? Stay tuned!
10. In the Relegation Race, the Newcomers are Safe... for Now
The Premier League title race looks over, but the three remaining Champions League spots could go to the wire in a six-way race, which would be exciting. It also looks like we should see a fascinating relegation race, with the bottom eight teams separated by just six points.
As far as the table goes, the three promoted teams are sitting pretty at the moment. Amazingly, none are in the relegation zone as we turn to the second half of the season: Huddersfield are in 11th, Brighton in 12th, and Newcastle in 15th.
Instead, Swansea, West Brom and Bournemouth occupy the drop zone at the moment. But as mentioned, it’s a right cozy neighborhood, what with West Ham, Palace, Stoke, Southampton and the aforementioned Newcastle all packed into a three-point range just above. But if you think that #10 - #12 Watford, Brighton and Huddersfield are completely out of the woods yet, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
There have been plenty of good fantasy finds from bottom half teams during the first part of the season. Now that the specter of relegation looms, things are going to get real very quickly. For some players, desperation will prove an excellent fire of inspiration. For others, instead, new January transfers will spell virtual relegation even before the season ends.
We’re going to have an awful lot of “six pointers” from here on out, so if you can grab the right players from the lower end teams that get hot, you’re going to be loving life.
How are you going to use the above takeaways from the first half to help your fantasy teams in the second half of the season? What other highlights have you noticed? Let us know in the comments!