I have been playing fantasy sports for just north of sixteen years now. A modest span compared to the existence of fantasy sports, but it encompasses more than half of my being, as a gentleman just shy of thirty. It is crazy to think that over the past sixteen years, my endearment to these silly little games has been unwavering. By comparison, there are thousands of things I can name for which my opinion HAS wavered over that span — tastes, attractions, feelings, opinions and philosophies.
I can think of only two things that I have liked longer: my favorite sports teams that I grew up watching, and a certain carbonated beverage famous for its highly educated combination of 23 different flavors (there will be no free plugs here). That’s the list. But what is it about fantasy sports that has captivated me? Strategy! This unending pursuit of outthinking, outmaneuvering, and outwitting opponents within the constraints of any given fantasy format.
Fantasy soccer, of all varieties, is quickly moving up my ranking of favorite games to play. Rather than a game of strategy, while some does surely exist, I like to look at the salary-based versions of the game as puzzles. I think the general consensus around the Fantasy Premier League community is that there are many strategies that can be played successfully, each having its own merits. And, why is this so important to a simple “Rate My Squad” article? Because this post marks a decided change in course of my overall Fantasy Premier League Strategy.
Typically, in any fantasy game I play, I want to construct a roster around the notion of balance. If you look at the rate my squad post from the preseason, you will see that there is an attempt to spread both the upside and risk across each position and price point. Between the two international breaks, I was looking for a competitive advantage to exploit with the deployment of my wildcard. I stumbled across this simple little logical equation that I could not get out of my head:
Defender clean sheet = Forward goal.
It cannot be that simple, can it? I should go sell off all of the premium forward assets and load up with the best defensive options in the game. The most important question that arises is: “What am I sacrificing by acquiring premium defenders instead of premium attackers?”
The largest trade-off, ultimately, comes from the two contrasting variable types. Clean sheets are counted as a binary variable — one bit equal to one or nothing. For defenders, think pass/fail, or flipping a coin. A team will either concede zero goals, or give up goals. The drawback is that it can be tallied only once.
By contrast, the goal-scoring polynomial has multiple terms (goals and assists), and a forward can tally either or both over and over. For me, this upside potential is what drives the premium-striker pricing bubble.
From there, I landed on a simple question: What is most likely to happen? So, without further ado, here is where I ended up.
In the Official Fantasy Premier League community, there is a common mantra about “form over fixtures,” suggesting that the current fettle of a given player is more relevant than the positive or negative favorability of an upcoming matchup. I do not believe in that maxim wholeheartedly, and I do not apply it to my goalkeeper selections. I will always take a favorable fixture over a goalkeepers current form, 100% of the time. I also do not believe in spending above the lower pricing tiers at this position, either.
For those reasons, I ended up with Mathew Ryan (Brighton, £4.5m) and Lukasz Fabianski (West Ham, £4.5m). I do still have £0.1m in the bank with a couple ways to acquire £0.2m to upgrade to Bernd Leno (Arsenal, £4.8m) if we get news that he will retain the starting keeper role despite Petr Cech (Arsenal, £5.0m) being passed fit already. A top-six goalkeeper, if he gets the full time gig, Leno would be an absolute STEAL at his current price.
As for Ryan and Fabianski, their runs of fixtures do not force me to select a goalkeeper against a top-six side until gameweek 22. There are no goalkeepers at the sub-£5.0m with a run of fixtures nearly as favorable as these two, even Leno.
This position will now be the bread-and-butter of my team. Prior to wildcarding, I had already acquired the likes of Marcos Alonso (Chelsea, £7.0m), Andrew Robertson (Liverpool, £6.4m), and Kieran Trippier (Tottenham, £6.3m), all at their preseason prices. In addition to those three, I have reacquired Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City, £6.2m), whom I sold on the diagnosis of his injured ankle. Robertson, Alonso, and Trippier all rank in the top six for total fantasy points scored this season. And, if you adjust the table for “Points per Match,” all four of these defenders are in the top ten, across all positions.
While all the attacking returns that these four defenders have provided this season are nothing short of phenomenal, the clean sheet still remains the backbone of the defender pool. By targeting top-six defenders, I am looking to capitalize on clean sheet potential to build a stable floor of fantasy points each week, as the table below would suggest.
Top-Six Clean Sheet History
|Top 6 Total||23||99||87||85|
|Rest of League||29||127||127||139|
|Top 6 Percentage||44%||44%||41%||38%|
Now this table is not a predictive tool, nor is it a commentary on Premier League defenses, or league-wide scoring. It is simply a tool to help establish a point and answer a couple valuable questions. As mentioned above, what is most likely to happen? And, what can we predict?
If we take a three-year average from the table above, using only completed seasons, the top-six sides account for 41% of the clean sheets. By applying that to a 38 game season, we would expect each top-six side to earn 15.5 clean sheets, 93 clean sheets in all, potentially. And, by playing the matchups, we can attempt to minimize blank returns, which are all too common from our fantasy front-lines, 12.5m, 7.0m, and 5.5m, pound strikers, alike. And, by focusing on the clean sheet, none of these prospective points rely upon attacking returns or bonus points, the in-vogue focus of the year of the fullback. And, who is to say that we will not see the percentage of top-six clean sheets rise again; it is not inconceivable to see that percentage rise closer to 50%.
The fifth defender is where the strategy gets a little tricky. Each fantasy manager will run out of money at some point. In the current iteration of my team, I left myself with around £4.5m. Currently, I have Rob Holding (Arsenal, £4.4m), again keeping to a top-six club. He started Monday against Leicester. I would not call anything about his performance as stand out, but he had a showing that was more good than bad. If he holds that position, he holds value as a nice rotation option with either another midfielder or forward.
In the previous section, I mentioned placing Bernd Leno in my squad. If that happens, Kiko Femenia (Watford, £4.2m) would be the swap with Holding, to secure the funds for Leno. Should news come out that Leno will move back to the bench for Petr Cech, I would also consider some other defenders if I decide to see a little more job security from Holding before locking him in.
Some names I am looking at include: Shane Duffy (Brighton, £4.5m), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle, £4.5m), Jonny (Wolverhampton, £4.5m) and Pablo Zabaleta (West Ham, £4.3m). Duffy and Zabaleta would be an attempt to capitalize on the same run of fixtures mentioned with the corresponding goalies, above. Yedlin is one of those beloved wing-backs, although there is some question about Newcastle’s ability to return to the level of defensive ability they showed last season. The upcoming fixtures for Newcastle are as good as those of Brighton and West Ham for the foreseeable future. And, Jonny is worth the look, with Wolverhampton looking to fill the role of the 2017-18 Burnley team: a top defensive unit outside of the top-six. Jonny also fulfills the necessary fullback requirement.
So, what impact does this focus have on the rest of my squad?
Anecdotally, I have always believed that midfield is the driving position of this game. I have no statistics or other mathematical backing to prove this, it is merely intuition. Attack-minded midfielders combine the best of all worlds for FPL managers. Midfielders who get assists, goals, and free kicks maximize scoring potential from attacker awards, and they can rack up bonus points owing to their sheer capacity for all-around contributions.
For those reasons, I am using the bulk of my remaining budget to load up my midfield. The center of my team is anchored by Mo Salah (Liverpool, £12.8m), Eden Hazard (Chelsea, £11.4m), and Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City, £9.7m). I do not think I need to make cases for these three; their FPL production speaks for itself.
The rest of my midfield may need some explaining. And, should something happen to one of my stars, there is plenty of room to move laterally to any of the other FPL stars: Sadio Mané (Liverpool, £9.7m), Paul Pogba (Manchester United, £8.0m), Mesut Özil (Arsenal, £8.4m), or Christian Eriksen (Tottenham, £9.2m). And/or, I can move some more money to another premium defender or goalkeeper, perhaps doubling-up on an elite back line. And, there is always the option of upgrading the front-line, a little bit, my least favorite.
After allocating money for my forwards, I left myself with a little over £9.0m to play with in the remainder of midfield. Because the nature of these players will be strictly for rotation of defenders, I placed an emphasis on the quality of upcoming fixtures. When going through the possible players at my disposal, I was surprised at how many options popped out as viable. Let’s make one thing clear though, this is not a treasure trove of talent. These are bargain priced, replacement level players with marginal upside at best. But, with the distribution of my budget, I want to capitalize on the opportunities where that upside can be reached, and only those matchups, as dictated by the number of defenders in my starting lineup.
The squad image above shows my last two midfielders as Josh Murphy (Cardiff, £4.8m) and Philip Billing (Huddersfield, £4.5m). Murphy is currently being deployed as a front-line player in a 4-3-3, for Cardiff. When I feel the need to bench a defender based on match-up, a midfielder playing out of position as a forward offers enough upside to punt when necessary. Billing, on the other hand, finds himself on a good number of free kicks for Huddersfield, most importantly those within shooting range. Again, upside is the key word. Although these two players play for teams that look doomed to the relegation zone, the ease of their coming fixtures gives me some confidence for when I have to deploy them.
On my radar is Tom Cairney (Fulham, £4.8m). The price drop he has endured, via his ankle injury, has brought him into my price bracket. What he has shown thus far in the season exceeds what I have seen from either Murphy and Billing thus far. But, there is still some uncertainty about when he will return to full health. That is what the transfers will be for, going forward. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Southampton, £4.5m) makes the watchlist, also. Not on the team due to the upcoming fixtures, he has already scored two goals this season, along with four bonus points. Finally, the out of nowhere long-shot that I have my eye on is Grady Diangana (West Ham, £4.5m). He came on for Andriy Yarmolenko (West Ham, £6.8m) who was subbed out injured over the weekend. If Diangana finds his way into the starting role, playing alongside Marko Arnautovic could lead to a bevy of points if they can link together, especially when you consider the long run of favorable fixtures.
If you have not figured out that I hate paying for forwards, I will start out with that premise. I HATE PAYING FOR FORWARDS. Hate it. So, thanks to the position changes and pricing tiers deployed this season, I think we can get by without having to roster the likes of Harry Kane (Tottenham, £12.5m), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City, £11.3m), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United, £10.9m), or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal, £10.8m).
The anchor to my forward-line is Marko Arnautovic (West Ham, £7.0m). As I have mentioned in a previous article and various chats, I think he is fixture-proof. He was incorrectly priced to begin the season, and I expect the gains to be huge over this long run of good fixtures for West Ham, health permitting. That is my ONLY concern about Arnautovic going forward.
Second on my squad is Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham, £6.9m). He was off to a blazing start with four goals in the first four games of the season. Since then, he has scored only once, however. If anyone else is going to emerge from the lower-level price tier and move into the fixture-proof status, he is most likely to be next. I believe that more good things are ahead for Mitrovic, especially once Tom Cairney returns. For now, he is a hold for me, but he could become a source for cash if I drop down to one of the cut-price options in order to afford a better midfielder or better fifth defender. He will be first on the chopping block in that instance.
Finally, I have rounded out the forwards with Raúl Jiménez (Wolverhampton, £5.7m). Wolves remain a favorite to finish mid-table this season. To do that they will need goals. Leading the line, Jiménez has managed to produce two goals and three assists. His early form reminds me of my favorite fantasy striker Roberto Firmino (Liverpool, £9.3m). If Jiménez were to return numbers similar to Firmino in 2016-17, eleven goals and assists, I would be elated!
Now the game requires that I deploying at least one of my strikeforce every week. That will be Arnautovic nearly every time, barring games against Manchester City, due to the way City control possession. The other two, much like my rotation midfielders, will be deployed when the defensive match-ups dictate it. For my strategy to work, all I need from the forward position is one goal or assist per round from each forward in my starting lineup.
Because I need ten outfield players in the starting lineup, the best match-up among the fifth defender, rotational midfielders, and rotation strikers will be used. This leaves me plenty of formation flexibility, enabling me to take advantage of the best match-ups.
The first concern is upside, or lack thereof. How much upside truly exists in the top tier defenders is yet to be seen. All of my upside is, essentially, plugged into the midfield and what they can produce. If Salah can get close to what he achieved last season, while De Bruyne and Hazard both get back to the 200 point plateau, I believe I can end up on the right side of the results.
The other major concern is the fact that I am forced to bypass the mid-tier midfielders. They include last year’s star, and personal favorite, Pascal Groß (Brighton, £6.7m), as well as the emerging stars of this season: Ryan Fraser (Bournemouth, £6.0m), Richarlison (Everton, £6.8), James Maddison (Leicester City, £7.0m), and André Schürrle (Fulham, £6.0), to name a few.
I am looking to “score goals” through a higher propensity to keep clean sheets. The key to the strategy is to exploit the logical equation “defensive clean sheet = forward goal scored.” Combined with deploying forwards only when they have the best opportunities to score, the strategy is driven by its ability to avoid the dreaded “blank.” The heights the team can reach will ultimately be determined by any combination of star midfielders within the constraints of my remaining budget.
I now turn my team over to you, the judges and jurors. What say you? What advantages or drawbacks do you see? What do you like and dislike about this roster construction? Let me know in the comments below!