I’m not going to lie to you and claim to be a chess aficionado, but I did follow FiveThirtyEight’s coverage of the recent World Chess Championships, and it was fascinating. Of course, a major draw was that one of the combatants was Fabiano Caruana, who was vying to become the first American to win the crown since the legendary Bobby Fischer; no small task, given that Caruana was pitted against long-time reigning champion and top-ranked Magnus Carlsen of Norway. Beyond that, though, there were interesting parallels to the upcoming Premier League festive season and its fantasy implications.
To recap: In the original round of regular chess games, Carlsen and Caruana ended every single one of them with a draw — 12 games, 12 draws! Boring, right? You might think that, but no, they were not boring at all. Interestingly, it appeared that as the games progressed, Carlsen was increasingly playing each for a draw on purpose, rather than going for a win at the risk of losing. Why? Because once the standard round ends without a winner, the format turns to speed chess. And Carlsen is supremely confident at his superiority in that discipline. As it turned out, it was a savvy strategy, as Carlsen won three straight games in the speed chess format to take the title.
Much like in a major football tournament such as the World Cup or Euros, a team chock full of great spot takers as well as a studly PK stopper in goal will be happy to play to a draw and get to penalties rather than pressing to win but leaving itself vulnerable to losing on the counter-attack. Another analogy would be tennis, where a big-serving player who feels that he or she has a big advantage in the tie-breaker format will be happy to play cautiously to a 6-6 stalemate in a set.
It also has similarities to fantasy Premier League, as this extremely crowded period of fixtures feels an awful lot like speed chess, rather than the more relaxed times when there’s a game per week, or sometimes every two weeks. With games coming rapid fire every couple/few days, it’s time to modify the regular way of playing and really get up to speed! Those of you who are fast on your feet will definitely feel at an advantage, but if you are not used to it yet, fear not, there are some helpful hints that can aid you in these daunting times. What strategic principles come to the forefront in this crazy crunch of fixtures over the festive period?
1. Prioritize players who are likely to start every game.
For the most part, that means defenders > midfielders > forwards. And within the defender realm, central defenders > wing defenders. I’m not saying that you should field a team full of Fernandinhos (after all, he is a defensive midfielder, which tends to be Fantrax poison), but you should look for players whom the manager views as indispensable. Fantrax greatly expanded its multiple position designations this season, and you can take advantage of that. Technically you’re only allowed five defenders, but loading up on dual-position players who are D/M (or D/F) eligible offers an opportunity to stack your team with those who are less likely to be rested compared to a team full of single-position players.
As well, you may be better served going with studs from lesser teams rather than stars from the Big Six squads, which are blessed with more depth, enabling dreaded rotation. On top of that, four of those top teams are in vital Champions League fixtures where the stars will be needed. If you are going with Big Six players, the teams that are likely to sit their stars in Europa League (Chelsea and Arsenal) are more attractive than the sides in Champions League (Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United) who are fighting either to win their group or to get through to the knockout round.
2. Value weekly plays over long-term discounts.
Early in the season, it’s a good strategy to hold on to players who get injured for a short period of time if you have them at a huge discount. Now though, it’s time to consider abandoning that principle. For one thing, we’ve already passed one-third of the season, and are rapidly approaching the half-way point; thus the long-term advantage, while not disappearing entirely, is diminishing somewhat.
More importantly, though, if a player was out two weeks last month, that would have meant only one or two games; now it can mean three. That’s a huge difference! You simply can’t afford to take too many zeroes. Each zero is opportunity lost; sure, you may not get much out of the replacement, but what if you do? You don’t want to miss out on too many chances to get something big. So expand your range for wheeling and dealing rather than standing pat. I’m not saying you should definitively sell Sergio Aguero if you have him at half price and it looks like he won’t play the next game, but you’ll want to at least consider it more than you would have a month ago.
3. Target stars who were rested the past game.
It’s always horrible when a high-priced star you have in your team is rested and gives you a big fat Christmas goose egg. But whether it hits you or someone else, exploit it when it happens. For instance, if a healthy star is rested for one game, chances are extremely high that he is going to start the next one (which could be in UCL, so watch for that too). On top of that, his price could fall, especially if he makes a low-points cameo appearance from the bench. Put those two things together — three things, if he has a favorable match-up — and go ahead and grab him for the next game!
With all of that in mind, who looks good in Week 15?
(Note: Player costs listed below are barn-door prices for the standard NMA league. Salaries will recalculate at or shortly after midnight Pacific tonight. YMMV.)
Hugo Lloris ($12.09, Tottenham v. Southampton)
It’s usually not a good idea to recommend someone coming off giving up four goals, but that was at Arsenal. This one’s at “home” (Wembley) against struggling Saints.
Asmir Begovic ($7.12, Bournemouth v. Huddersfield)
I only ever recommend Begovic under the most favorable of circumstances, and now as luck would have it, being at home against Huddersfield applies! Begovic has kept clean sheets against Cardiff and Southampton at the Liberty already this season, and he’s got a good chance at another.
Wayne Hennessey ($6.71, Crystal Palace at Brighton)
Crystal Palace boasts two successive clean sheets (at Manchester United and v. Burnley), with Hennessey racking up an average of 13.5 ppg in those contests. The Eagles now travel to Falmer Stadium, but their shot stopper actually has more clean sheets away (3) than home (2) thus far, and the Seagulls’ offense is far from explosive.
Lucasz Fabianski ($6.67, West Ham v. Cardiff)
I can’t win for trying with Fabianski and the West Ham defense. When I expect good things, they disappoint. When I give up on them, they deliver a strong performance. If you have better luck than me with the Hammers defensive end, go for it.
Sergio Rico ($1.43, Fulham v. Leicester)
A lot of fantasy managers hate paying more than the bare minimum for keepers. If you’re in that boat, then look no further than Fulham’s Sergio Rico, on sale for a pittance. He struggled in his first two games (-7 and -1 points) but has picked things up since then (3, 10, and 6). The Foxes have some dangerous offensive weapons, but the game is at Craven Cottage, so don’t be greedy, the match-up could be far worse.
Marcos Alonso ($16.15, Chelsea at Wolverhampton) [D/M eligible]
I’m generally loath to pay premium for defenders, but in times like these — with fixture congestion that makes me wary of rest for high-priced offensive stars — I’ll make an exception. Alonso is averaging 10.7 ppg on the road this season, and despite a strong start from Wolves, the newcomers are now struggling at both ends of the pitch.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka ($12.14, Crystal Palace at Brighton) [D/M eligible]
Broken record alert: Get Obi-Wan Bissaka into your teams! OWB (or AWB if you prefer the non-Star Wars parlance) is averaging 10.5 ppg on the road, and you can expect another nice return at lowly Brighton.
Lucas Digne ($11.90, Everton v. Newcastle)
It may seem as if we’re contractually obligated to mention Lucas Digne and/or Aaron Wan-Bissaka every week for Fantrax picks. No need to break form now! The Toffees’ wing-back has notched double digit points in three straight games (and 10 of the past 12), and this match-up certainly looks inviting enough to keep that streak going.
Toby Alderweireld ($7.44, Tottenham v. Southampton)
Alderweireld was rested for the horror show North London derby. Now he gets a tasty home affair against the goal-shy Saints.
Dejan Lovren ($5.35, Liverpool at Burnley)
Lovren didn’t feature against Everton, giving him a good chance to rotate in for either Virgil Van Dijk or Joe Gomez. After missing out early this season through injury, Lovren has scored double digit points in three of his four games, offering a potentially outstanding bargain considering his cut rate cost compared to his more expensive defensive mates.
Charlie Daniels ($4.43, Bournemouth v. Huddersfield) [D/M eligible]
Daniels has scored at least four points in five of his seven games so far this season. He should be able to do the same at home against Huddersfield, with the hope that he will deliver even more.
Fabian Delph ($3.78, Manchester City at Watford) [D/M eligible]
Delph was surprisingly left out of the XI against Bournemouth at the weekend, so hopefully he will get the mid-week start and pay off for those keeping the faith. He scored 3 points in 36 minutes from the bench, so even a repeat of that wouldn’t be a disaster... but you’ll need him to start in order to keep him in your teams beyond this week.
Juan Foyth ($3.32 Tottenham v. Southampton)
Young Foyth was super-Spursy against Arsenal, committing the awful gaffe that gifted the Gunners’ their go-ahead goal. But with Jan Vertonghen suspended (red card via two yellows) for the home game against the Saints, and with Davinson Sanchez apparently still mending from injury, Mauricio Pocchettino seemingly has nowhere else to turn.
Bernardo ($2.30, Brighton v. Crystal Palace)
Playing only his third and fourth games of the season the past two weeks, the very affordable Bernardo has notched 6 and 7 points, respectively. He should be able to keep that production going at home against Palace.
Yerry Mina ($1.89, Everton v. Newcastle)
Mina has started the past four games, establishing himself as Marco Silva’s preferred central defensive partner to Michael Keane ahead of Kurt Zouma, the early season favorite while Mina was injured. As we saw at the World Cup with Colombia, Mina is always a danger to score on a set piece goal, and this game gives him a good chance at the clean sheet bonus as well.
Tyrone Mings ($1.40, Bournemouth v. Huddersfield)
I’m not yet sure what it means, but Mings just returned from lengthy injury to turn in a 90-minute, 13-point effort against Man City, and he faces Huddersfield at home next... if he can start again so soon. Fortunately, this match is in our pre-deadline confirmation window, so you can wait before committing. At least have this dirt-cheap points machine on your radar when the pre-deadline chat gets down to brass tacks; his price could skyrocket soon!
Richarlison ($16.76, Everton v. Newcastle)
I’ll admit I’m a bit worried that Marco Silva will rest Richarlison, given that there is not much recovery time between Sunday and Wednesday. However, I think that Richarlison’s youth, compared to more up-in-years Gylfi Sigurdsson and Theo Walcott, gives him a better chance of remaining in the XI. The young Brazilian is averaging 12.4 ppg at home, and Newcastle is not what anybody but the most devoted Magpies fan would call a high level of competition.
David Silva ($15.66, Manchester City at Watford)
See rule #3 above. Pep Guardiola rested David Silva and Riyad Mahrez (as well as an injured Sergio Aguero) over the weekend against Bournemouth. Now he may decide to rotate a couple/few among Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane, with David Silva likely the first choice to get back in the XI. If you’re looking for more of a budget option, Phil Foden or Oleksandar Zinchenko are intriguing options, but be sure to keep an eye on team news before making that leap.
James Maddison ($12.06, Leicester City at Fulham)
Since Claudio Ranieri’s takeover of the Cottagers, fantasy managers aren’t as locked into the anybody-against-Fulham strategy anymore. However, I would be remiss not to recommend someone on the Foxes, and the Madd Man has gotten his mojo back with an absolutely brilliant goal against Watford. I’m worried that Jamie Vardy may be rested after starting two straight games in rapid fire fashion (in all competitions) since recovering from injury, making Maddison the prime Leicester City offensive pick in my mind.
Andre Schurrle ($11.65, Fulham v. Leicester City) [M/F eligible]
Schurrle unexpectedly missed out over the weekend with a “won’t be risked” twinge, but he is expected to be available for this one. He is averaging 9.3 ppg at home, and while Leicester City isn’t anywhere close to the bottom of the barrel, they’re not exactly top shelf either.
David Brooks ($11.14, Bournemouth v. Huddersfield) [M/F eligible]
The more productive (and extra expensive) Ryan Fraser is usually the automatic pick from the Cherries’ midfield. But given Fraser’s injury history in the past couple of seasons, this would seem like a good spot for Eddie Howe to rest him. Brooks played only 18 minutes in the loss at Manchester City over the weekend and should be raring to go for this tempting home match-up.
James Milner ($9.33, Liverpool at Burnley) [D/M eligible]
Given all of the fixture congestion combined with vital Champions League in the near-ish future, Jurgen Klopp will be tempted to rotate his XI heavily. Milner rested in the Merseyside derby, making him a prime candidate to be back in the starting line-up for the visit to Turf Moor. The wiley veteran is averaging 8.4 ppg on the road, and Burnley is in a tailspin, so Milner looks good value even at his high price.
Lucas Moura or Erik Lamela ($8.52 or $7.99, Tottenham v. Southampton) [Moura is M/F eligible]
Last season, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, and Son Heung-Min were the locked-in offensive partners with Harry Kane. This season, the situation has been more in flux due to injury and international duty. However, with all available and back to full fitness, the quartet seems to have reasserted itself. Now Mauricio Pochettino may look to rest some of his stars, which could point to Moura and/or Lamela starting. In London against Southampton, you can’t ask for a much better fixture.
Willian ($8.33, Chelsea at Wolves) [M/F eligible]
Pedro starred over the weekend while Willian rested. That probably means that Willian will be back in the starting line-up at Molineux. The Brazilian winger is averaging 8.3 ppg on the road this season.
Pascal Gross ($6.70, Brighton v. Crystal Palace) [M/F eligible]
Gross nabbed 9 points without a goal or assist at Huddersfield, and this one is at home against a sub-par Eagles side.
Video: Divock Origi scores a 96th minute winner!
Harry Kane ($23.16, Tottenham v. Southampton)
I am slightly worried that Pochettino will rest Kane in favor of Fernando Llorente or even Lucas Moura. However, I looked back at last year and saw that Kane played at least 75 minutes in every Premier League game between November 5 and December 26 in 2017. So if history repeats itself, you can count on Poch turning to his talisman with regularity. In London against the sorry Saints, sign me up!
Aleksandar Mitrovic $14.61, Fulham v. Leicester City)
He may not have done anything at Chelsea, but Mitrovic is averaging 13.0 ppg at home, where he has scored 5 of his 7 goals. With Claudio Ranieri facing his former team, I don’t expect the title-winning manager to rest his star striker.
Joshua King ($10.94, Bournemouth v. Huddersfield)
King has actually scored more goals at home (3) than his costlier strike partner Callum Wilson (2), so why not save some money if you want in on the Cherries’ offense?
Callum Paterson ($8.96, Cardiff at West Ham) [D/F eligible]
In his last eight starts, Paterson has scored at least 9 points four times, and 3 or fewer the other four times. Obviously that means that he is very hit or miss. If you believe that West Ham can keep a clean sheet, Paterson will be the latter. If you don’t think the Hammers can do it, then go ahead and grab Patterson.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez ($6.47, West Ham v. Cardiff)
Coming off a brace, and with at least 8 points in three of his past four games, Li’l Pea is in line to keep the prosperity going at home against a Cardiff side that has conceded the third-most goals in the league. Marko Arnautovic could also be a good call, but he’s more expensive and I’m more worried about Manuel Pellegrini resting Arnie than Chicharito, given the Austrian’s injury woes this season.
Daniel Sturridge or Divock Origi ($4.09 or $1.40, Liverpool at Burnley)
Again, I’m concerned about rotation at Liverpool, especially on offense. That could see Sturridge or derby-hero Origi rewarded with a start, which offers a potentially tremendous return on the cheap. As with so many other considerations this week, be extra sure to check team news as the deadline approaches.
Whom do you want to ditch? Whom do you want to buy? Who worries you still, particularly with respect to rotation? And is UK weather a concern of yours yet? (If not, it will be, so don’t let it frost-bite your fantasy squads with postponed matches!) Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: BOU-HUD, BRI-CRY & WHU-CAR are our three deadline matches whose lineups should be revealed in time to make last-minute adjustments. Take those grains of salt as needed in your risk assessments now, and join us in the pre-deadline chat to make corrections as necessary.