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Building the Best FPL Team: Lukaku, Kane, Both or Neither?

Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane are two of the most-owned players in Official FPL fantasy. They are also two of the most expensive. Is having both, either or neither of the star strikers the best strategy?

Swansea City v Manchester United - Premier League
Costing less than goalless Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku has made fantasy owners happy so far with three scores in as many games.
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Shortly before the season started, Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku was owned by 48% of Official FPL managers, while 35% had Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane, making them two of the most-prized players in the game (Deli Alli was in between the duo at 38%). Kane was the most expensive (£12.5), while Lukaku (£11.5) tied for second-priciest striker with Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero (Arsenal midfielder Alexis Sanchez was the second-dearest player overall at £12.0). Since then, the pay gap has shrunk slightly (£12.5 vs. £11.7) while the ownership gap has widened considerably (58% vs. 28%) as several players — Paul Pogba, Sadio Mane and Chicharito — have actually jumped over the sputtering Spurs sniper in that category.

While things have certainly changed a bit over the first three weeks of the season, the question remains: Is it better to be top heavy with two expensive studs such as Lukaku and Kane, to go with the middle ground and grab only one of those high-tier types, or to focus on budget-conscious strikers and thus spread more moolah around the midfield, defender and keeper positions?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering — as surely we’ve all been — for some time now. It’s certainly been gnawing in the back of my head. In the weeks leading up to this season, a couple of things came to mind. The first was my initial piece for NMA in the lead-up to 2015/16. Like many of you, I was playing Official FPL for the first time after the Yahoo portal had ceased operating. I wanted to get an idea of how to value players, and in pondering the subject, this is one key takeaway (among a slew of many, many fascinating ones) that I found from the 2014/15 numbers:

Position & Price.csv

Strikers 8.7 152 points 0.0570/point
Midfielders 8.9 176 points 0.0506/point
Defenders 6.1 145 points 0.0421/point
Keepers 5.1 132 points 0.0306/point

So clearly putting money in keepers and defenders was the way to go since you get much more bang for the buck in those positions, right? Well, as it turned out, no, not exactly. As you surely recall, Chelsea was coming off a dominant 2014/15 season, which left their players astronomically expensive. With the Blues cratering in 2015/16, buying Thibaut Courtois, Gary Cahill, John Terry and company proved to be an absolutely awful investment. So I kind of forgot about the premise. My thought process reverted to that of simply searching for good value wherever I could find it.

The second thing that came to mind was the post I did recommending the top midfielders for the upcoming 2017/18 season. Do you mind if I quote myself? Well, you certainly shouldn’t if you already perused a regurgitated chart. (Much like the Tower of Pisa, my work builds on itself!) Anyway, here goes:

“Strikers may be the glory boys in real life, but what about in fantasy? Well, midfielders Alexis Sanchez and Dele Alli were the top two scorers in Official FPL last season, and Eden Hazard tied striker Harry Kane for third. In fact, seven midfielders made it into the top 10 overall (including Roberto Firmino, who was classified as a middie). Yet which position accounts for seven of the most expensive 10 prices this season? You guessed it - striker! So if you’re looking for value, look no further than the center of the pitch.”

Yet, when I was going over team selection this summer, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave out the most expensive striker in the game. First of all, I’m a Spurs fan. Second of all, do you remember how Mr. Kane did not only last season on the whole, but how truly mind-bendingly amazing he was at the end of last season? By definition, because he was so brilliant and also since it happened quite recently, that’s the most memorable part, there’s no way you could have forgotten unless you were in a coma or enjoyed some serious peyote over the summer!

In the final hours of team selection, the lightbulb went off (not that I imagine it’s either an entirely original idea or an Einstein-worthy thought, mind you). I’m a numbers guy, so you won’t be surprised that it involves, well, numbers. Numbers solve everything, don’t they?

I first calculated how many points a line-up would be expected to score involving Kane and Lukaku. (Again, in a rough, bare bones fashion that does not take into account many, more difficult-to-calculate factors.) If I wanted both of them on my team, whom could I afford around them, and how many points would they be projected to bring me? And could alternate line-ups without one or both of them actually be expected to deliver more points? It’s rather rudimentary, yes, but I think it’s a good starting point regarding how to build the best team, a blueprint for how to score the most points within the budget.

(Note: Ideally I would have put this post up before the season. Missing out on that, I thought that it would be good to look at during the international break when people are starting to think about blowing up their teams and essentially starting over. Admittedly, many of the projections already look foolish now. But come on, can you honestly tell me that you really thought Kane, Kevin De Bruyne, Jermain Defoe, Leighton Baines, James Milner, Andre Ayew, et al. would have a combined 0 goals and 0 assists?)

Lineup A: Top Heavy (Both Kane and Lukaku)

What would a line-up with Kane, Lukaku, and a slew of lesser lights look like, and how would it be expected to fare? After all, with the duo taking up £24.0 of the budget and leaving £76.0 for the remaining 13 players (an average of £5.8 each), there isn’t much room for star quality elsewhere. But that’s the trade-off when you go with the two highest priced players who are also probably expected to score the most points, particularly when Alexis Sanchez was missing out early with injury and linked with no shortage of transfer rumors due to seeming unhappiness at the absence of Champion’s League action.

I went with the following line-up, which included only one more true star in Manchester City’s KDB who cost £10.0; the next most expensive player was Pedro at £8.0 and the starters ate up £82.0 of the budget, leaving only £18.0 for a very thin bench, especially for the third striker. But when you have Kane and Lukaku, why pay more than the bare minimum for the final forward?

Two Premium Strikers.csv

Starter G 5.0 F. Forster 145
Starter D 5.0 Cedric Soares 120
Starter D 5.5 R. Bertrand 140
Starter D 5.5 N. Monreal 130
Starter D 5.0 C. Daniels 135
Starter M 10.0 K. De Bruyne 235
Starter M 8.0 Pedro 170
Starter M 7.0 A. Ayew 160
Starter M 7.0 W. Zaha 160
Starter F 12.5 H. Kane 250
Starter F 11.5 R. Lukaku 235
Starter Captain N/A H. Kane 250
BENCH G 4.5 J. Hart 135
BENCH D 4.5 M. Holgate 90
BENCH M 4.5 R. Loftus-Cheek 100
BENCH F 4.5 Cheap filler 50

According to my projections, this top-heavy line-up delivered 2,130 points from the starters, along with 375 points from the bench. [Note: I counted the points of the highest-projected scorer twice in order to account for the captaincy bonus.]

Lineup B: The Middle Ground (One of Kane or Lukaku)

Having only one of Kane or Lukaku (yes, of course I went with Kane) left me a little more money for the rest of my starters, while also allowing a bit more for the bench as well. I was able to add a second strong midfielder to De Bruyne in the form of Tottenham’s Dele Alli. Perhaps most importantly, it allowed a switch from 4-4-2 to 3-4-3 due to having a stronger third striker, West Ham United’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.

One Premium Striker.csv

STARTER G 5.0 F. Forster 145
STARTER D 5.0 Cedric Soares 120
STARTER D 5.5 R. Bertrand 140
STARTER D 5.0 C. Daniels 135
STARTER M 10.0 K. De Bruyne 235
STARTER M 9.5 D. Alli 225
STARTER M 7.0 A. Ayew 160
STARTER M 7.0 W. Zaha 160
STARTER F 12.5 H. Kane 250
STARTER F 8.0 J. Defoe 170
STARTER F 7.0 Chicharito 175
STARTER Captain N/A H. Kane 250
BENCH G 4.5 J. Hart 135
BENCH D 5.0 C. Fuchs 120
BENCH D 4.5 M. Holgate 90
BENCH M 4.5 R. Loftus-Cheek 100

It didn’t surprise me that the bench delivered more in the Kane only line-up (445 points) than in the Kane/Lukaku line-up; that was to be expected, especially since I spent a bit more on them (£18.5). But what did shock me a bit was that the starters in the so-called middle ground line-up also brought a higher total (2,165 points) despite spending less (£81.5). Go figure, eh?

Lineup C: Spreading the Wealth (Neither Kane nor Lukaku)

Without the dent in the wallet from Kane or Lukaku, I was free to spread my moolah around big time. My third striker, Burnley’s Sam Vokes, was nothing extraordinary, but four midfielders were projected for at least 160 points and three were at 225 or more (De Bruyne, Alli and Christian Eriksen). More importantly, the savings allowed me a major upgrade in defense with Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso, Liverpool’s Milner and Everton’s Baines. Intriguingly, that left keeper Fraser Forster as my lowest scoring starter at 145 points.

No Premium Strikers.csv

STARTER G 5.0 F. Forster 145
STARTER D 7.0 M. Alonso 175
STARTER D 6.5 J. Milner 165
STARTER D 6.0 L. Baines 150
STARTER M 10.0 K. De Bruyne 235
STARTER M 9.5 D. Alli 225
STARTER M 9.5 C. Ericksen 225
STARTER M 7.0 W. Zaha 160
STARTER F 8.0 J. Defoe 170
STARTER F 7.0 Chicharito 175
BENCH F 6.0 S. Vokes 150
STARTER Captain N/A K. De Bruyne 235
BENCH G 4.5 J. Hart 135
BENCH D 4.5 M. Holgate 90
BENCH M 4.5 R. Loftus-Cheek 100
STARTER D 5.0 C. Daniels 135

One big difference, of course, came in the return from the captain. Instead of Kane’s 250 points doubling, it was merely De Bruyne’s 235 counting twice, so there was a sacrifice in that respect. Even so, with the same starter/bench budget breakdown (£81.5/ £18.5) as Model B, this time again I not only ended up with the biggest bench production (460 points), but also the best output from my starters (2,210 points) of the three different line-ups. As Joey Lawrence said perhaps once or twice, “Woah!”

My Entire World is Collapsing, That Can’t be Right! Is it Really True?

Harry Kane was amazing last year when he scored 224 points in only 30 games, missing a couple stints with injury. But he cost only £11.0 at the start of the season, considerably less than now. Romelu Lukaku was also brilliant, tallying 221 points in a fuller complement of games, but likewise he was an amazing bargain, costing just £9.0 at the beginning. Much like a grizzled old-timer lamenting today’s astronomical cost of hard candy, car magazines and chaw, oh how I yearn for the good old days of one year ago when you could get a first-rate forward for peanuts!

If you pay for both, or even either, of the stud strikers this season, you’re not getting nearly as good of a value. To get what you’re paying for, you’ll probably need Kane to score 30-plus goals and you’ll want Lukaku to nab at least 27 or 28. How many times has Kane scored 30 goals? Zilch. How often has Lukaku bagged more than 25? Again, never. And even then, it still might not be enough. Maybe you’ll need 32 or 33 goals from Kane and 30 from Lukaku.

Fun fact, there have only been two 30 goal scorers in the Premier League in the past 10 seasons: Luis Suarez with 31 in 2013-14 and Robin Van Persie with 30 in 2011-12. That’s it! And not too long ago, in 2010-11, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov shared the Golden Boot award with 20 goals. 20 stinkin’ goals, can you believe it! The odds of either Kane or Lukaku, let alone both Kane and Lukaku, netting 30 goals or thereabouts are simply more wishful than realistic.

The doubling of the captain’s score has influenced us all to think that we need the biggest points producer, no matter what the cost. But a look at the numbers reveals that to be a fallacy. As long as you can stay within range of the top scorer with one or more of your players, you should be fine.

Yes indeed, believe it or not, you’re really probably better off spreading your money around and trying to get this season’s version of 2016/17 Kane and/or Lukaku, that is, top notch production (or near it) at a discount. Perhaps Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus or Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata among strikers, and/or a couple/few among a plethora of midfielders. That will leave you with more money to sprinkle around on defense/keeper and on your bench, which should also pay off nicely.

It might not be as joyous as it’s going on — again, how much fun was pumping your fist all 29 times that Kane scored and letting out a little yelp for each of Lukaku’s 25 strikes — but can you shrug off those games when they did absolutely nothing?

More to the point — pardon the pun -- you can’t look past the scoring system. Points are points, no matter how they come. Strikers get only four points for goals, while midfielders get five and defenders get six. For clean sheets, defenders and keepers get four points, midfielders one, and strikers zilch. Everybody gets three points per assist, but it’s middies who tend to rack them up.

Despite the evening out mechanism provided by the scoring system, particularly for strikers and midfielders, for whatever reason the pricing remains lopsided. How many points did Alli, Eriksen, Kane and Lukaku score last season? 225, 218, 224 and 221, respectively. Then why do Kane and Lukaku cost so much more (again, £24.0 together) than Eriksen and Alli (only £19.0 combined)? Is it just because they’re...wait for it...GLORY BOY STRIKERS?!

It’s something that surely many of us have known intuitively for a long time, even if we were loath to admit it. Overpriced strikers are the false idols whom we worship. The numbers have pulled back the curtain...with the major caveat of course being that projections are by definition mere estimates, replete with varying ranges of error, rather than inevitable fact. With all of its faults (and yes, many have been revealed, all too quickly), the line-up designed to avoid high-priced players — particularly strikers — and instead spread things around is a strong basic model, merely in need of more accurate point projections, or perhaps just different players.

If this comparison has destroyed your idea of all that’s good and decent in this world, I humbly apologize, and I assure you that I also feel your pain. But hey, sometimes that’s the unfortunate by-product of the cold, hard truth.

For so long, we’ve all been conditioned to think that top-heavy is sexy, haven’t we? (And not only with regard to fantasy Premier League, if you know what I’m saying, right?) But really, is there anything hotter than winning your fantasy league? Surely even Kate Upton and Sofia Vergara will concede the answer to that question.

If you have one or two of the priciest players in your line-up, does this change your thinking? Are you going to modify your team accordingly when you use your unlimited transfer chip? Or will you stick with Lukaku, Kane, Sanchez and/or Aguero? Do you have another model that you prefer? Let us know in the comments!