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6 Things We Learned from the First Half of the EPL Season

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It’s been a wondrous, fun-filled first half of the EPL season. What lessons have we learned, and how can we apply them to our fantasy Premier League teams the rest of the way?

Virgil van Dijk and Alisson - Liverpool FC - Premier League
Mo Salah made an enormous impact last season, but these two guys have been huge in 2018-19.
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It’s one thing to try to divine trends from five games, or even ten, but midway through a season we have a much larger sample size, offering a truer basis for reflection and action. So, with an eye for applying lessons, let’s examine a half dozen key takeaways from the first half.

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1. Liverpool’s offense is entertaining, but the Reds’ defense is even more distinguished.

Last season at Liverpool, it was all about the offense. Led by the truly unbelievable debut campaign from Mo Salah, and flanked by the explosive talents of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool’s 84 goals scored (2.2 per game) ranked second in the league, behind only Manchester City’s 104 and well ahead of joint-third Arsenal and Tottenham at 74. Meanwhile, the 38 goals allowed (1.0 gpg) tied only for fourth-fewest with Chelsea, behind Manchester City (27), Manchester United (28), and Spurs (36), and just one better than sixth-best Burnley (39).

The Merseysiders’ brass identified the keeper position as the weakest link, prioritizing the addition of Brazil #1 Alisson Becker from Roma at a tidy transfer tag of €62.5m. Naturally that brought with it high hopes for significant defensive improvement. However, with a trio of exciting new toys on offense — midfielders Naby Keita from RB Leipzig (€60.0m in a delayed move), Fabinho from Monaco (€45.0m), and Xheridan Shaqiri from Stoke (€14.7m) — it was really the attacking side of the ball where observers expected more of a surge.

So far in 2018-19, the offense has been pretty gosh darn good. The Reds have scored 43 times (averaging 2.3 gpg), which ranks second. But that’s again an extreme distance back from the Citizens, who have rampaged with 51 goals (2.7 gpg). Perhaps a bit unexpectedly, Liverpool hasn’t really closed the gap on the attacking end.

Then how the heck is Liverpool sitting at 1st place in the table at the midway point? Defense, of course! The upgrade from Loris Karius to Alisson has been absolutely stupendous. The newcomer boasts a sterling save rate of 87%, compared to 64% for Karius and Simon Mignolet combined last season (individually it was 69% for Karius and 60% for Mignolet). The Seleção stand-out has kept a remarkable 12 clean sheets in 19 games (63%), a nice jump from the combination of Karius and Mignolet who actually delivered a solid total of 17 shutouts (45%) in the whole of last season.

It’s not just all about Alisson, of course. Virgil van Dijk, in his first full season at Anfield following last winter’s transfer, has made the leap from “great” to absolute “world class”. Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren have performed at an outstanding level as VvD’s alternating partner in central defense, while young stars Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have stepped up on the wings with another year of seasoning.

What does that mean for your fantasy teams? Salah and Mane have certainly been good performers if you have had them. However, the star midfielders’ production has not lived up to expectations given their dear prices. Rather, it is on the cheaper defensive end where Liverpool has truly exerted its fantasy value. Alisson ranks #1 at keeper with 98 points in Official FPL, well ahead of #2 Ederson of Manchester City who has 79 points. In defense, Robertson is #1 among defenders with 109 points, while VvD is #3 with 103 and TAA — who has missed several games — is #4 with 84.

FPL managers are limited to a trio of players per team, and those who grabbed two or three Reds among keeper + defenders are probably faring better than those who instead focused on the Liverpudlian attack.

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2. Fears of Manchester City’s offensive rotation have not been realized... yet.

The summer addition of high-flying winger (and 2015-16 Premier League Player of the Year) Riyad Mahrez from Leicester, along with Manchester City’s desire not just to repeat as Premier League champions but also to go for crowns on multiple other fronts (Champions League, the FA Cup and the Carabao Cup) had many fantasy managers worried that the offensive stars who had been so brilliant in 2017-18 — particularly Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, and Kevin De Bruyne — would suffer from limited minutes this season.

Amazingly so far, that has not been the case, at least with respect to non-injury related rotation. Mahrez has been an irregular starter, cracking the XI in only 9 of the 19 Premier League games. There have been injuries to key cogs — Sergio Aguero (14 starts), David Silva (13) and Kevin De Bruyne (1) — which has otherwise kept EPL rest/rotation to a minimum. That has seen Pep Guardiola go with a fairly regular offensive line-up featuring Bernardo Silva (17 starts) and Raheem Sterling (15 starts) as the most so far, while Leroy Sane (12 starts) has become a regular recently with seven straight. That has given fantasy managers some semblance of certainty when selecting players from the Citizens’ offensive machine.

Sterling has scored 116 points, ranking #4 among all FPL players, and #3 among midfielders. Sane has notched 94 points, good for a tie at #4 among mids. Each has proven a bargain compared to Liverpool’s Mo Salah, considering the significantly cheaper prices. At an even more affordable cost, Bernardo Silva has delivered 84 points, ranking 12th at the position.

Of course, with Aguero, KDB and David Silva returning to fitness recently — combined with the Sky Blues’ advancement in a plethora of competitions outside the Premiership — the second half may yet bring those early fears back into play. For now though, go ahead and keep chugging along on the Citizens’ train as long as you can. (And in Fantrax, KDB costs about $1 for a few more hours!)

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3. The Manchester United and Burnley defenses have absolutely imploded.

Last season, Manchester United and Burnley thrived on defense. The Red Devils conceded only 28 goals (0.7 gpg, second-fewest in the league), while the Clarets allowed just 39 (1.0 gpg, sixth-fewest). This season has brought bewildering collapses, with Manchester United allowing 31 goals (1.6 gpg) and Burnley conceding 41 (2.6 gpg)... meaning that each has amazingly allowed more goals in the first half of this season than all of last year!

As a natural by-product, clean sheets have been scarce, making things difficult for keepers and defenders to make an impact in fantasy. Manchester United kept a league-high 19 clean sheets in 2017-18 (50% of games), and Burnley did so 11 times (29%). This season, it’s just two for the Red Devils (11%) and only four for the Clarets (21%), a steep decline, particularly for the former.

Joe Hart has miraculously been a somewhat useful fantasy asset, thanks to making a dizzying number of saves (a league-leading 76). Even so, he has not been able to avoid a falloff; Nick Pope ranked #4 in the fantasy game last season with 152 points (4.3 ppg), while Hart is #8 with 69 points (3.6 ppg) so far. Meanwhile, David De Gea has endured a brutal fantasy dropoff; the Spaniard sensation was the #1 keeper in FPL last season with (172) points (4.6 ppg). That had him start the season as the most expensive proposition at the position, but he has plummeted all the way back to #17 among keepers with only 53 points (2.8 ppg). Did the World Cup psych him out?

As for defenders, Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia led Manchester United with 146 points last season; this time around, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling tie as the team’s best at the position with only 35 points at the half. The much more affordable James Tarkowski was Burnley’s top back line performer with 101 points; this season he is actually almost on pace to match that at 50 points now, but it has come entirely from improved offensive production (3 goals scored, compared to none last campaign).

Of course, it is possible that either or both will turn things around on the defensive end in the second half. But it seems foolish to count on that, so if you haven’t already turned elsewhere, you might just want to get on that now.

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4. Chelsea desperately needs to add a good new forward.

Under new manager Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea has emerged with a strong, improved offense, tying for 5th in the league with 37 goals scored. Yet sadly, Eden Hazard is the only truly reliable fantasy asset on the Blues’ offense.

Early in the season, Sarri utilized a single forward, but failed to settle on Alvaro Morata (10 starts) or Olivier Giroud (5 starts) through a combination of poor performance and injury. Toward the start of the season there was also a bit of a revolving door between Willian (16 starts) and Pedro (10 starts). Disappointingly, Pedro ranks only #20 in fantasy scoring among midfielders, while Willian is even further back at #27. (Pedro strained his hammy yesterday at Watford, so stay tuned regarding that line-up and performance impact.)

Additionally, the new manager has regularly turned to three players whose natural position is defensive midfield — N’Golo Kante (19 starts), Jorginho (18), and Mateo Kovacic (13) — rarely turning to the more offensively-inclined Ross Barkley (5 starts) or Ruben Loftus-Cheek (1). Kante has often been given good chances to score, but he usually wastes them; Kante has established himself as one of the elite defensive midfielders in the world, but his skill set simply does not include finishing at the offensive end.

Eden Hazard - Chelsea FC - Premier League
Eden Hazard seems like he’s all alone out there sometimes.
Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Recently, Sarri has given up on Morata and Giroud, instead utilizing Hazard up front in the “False 9” role, while starting both Pedro and Willian in attack, which has thankfully improved the fantasy value of both wingers. But it seems clear that Sarri would prefer to add a strong striker in the winter transfer window. The downside is that a new forward could put Willian and Pedro back in the same uncertain position as before (following Pedro’s injury recovery, of course). But the upside is that it could actually give Chelsea a genuinely worthy fantasy option on offense aside from Eden Hazard.

Hazard and fellow attacking midfielder Frank Lampard before him stand out as the offensive stalwarts of the team in recent memory, but the Blues have also featured a bevy of outstanding strikers in those times, notably Diego Costa, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka, Hernan Crespo, Eidur Gudjohnsen, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Given the worthy offensive production of the Blues, another would be a welcome gift to fantasy managers.

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5. Cheap Strikers Have Rendered High-Priced, Big-Name Attacking Stars Surplus

Not surprisingly, Arsenal sniper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Tottenham talisman Harry Kane sit atop the EPL goal scoring leader board while also notching the most FPL points at the high-profile striker position. Fellow pricey forward Sergio Aguero from Manchester City would be right there with them had he not missed several games due to injury.

Fascinatingly though, there has been an abundance of cut rate counterparts on the lesser squads — most notably Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson, Wolves’ Raul Jimenez, Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, Brighton’s Glenn Murray, and Southampton’s Danny Ings — who are not far behind the superstar Big Six line leaders, and are actually ahead of other higher-priced strikers from the prestige teams such as Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku, Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino (as well as Leicester’s Jamie Vardy who has established himself as a reliable fantasy favorite).

If you paid top dollar for Auba, Kane, Kun, Morata, or Lukaku, or if you went for middle ground with Firmino or Vardy, their returns really haven’t justified their price tag when compared to the cut-rate production of Wilson, Jimenez, Mitrovic, Murray, and Ings. In an effort to extract the biggest bang for the buck, many successful fantasy managers have gone cheap at forward and spread the bulk of their budgets elsewhere, paying up to grab big points with premium selections at the other, less-heralded positions. If you can get almost the same production or more from your forward trio at a fraction of the cost, why wouldn’t you?

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6. On that note, Bournemouth and Wolves have been fine sources of fantasy production.

Fans and fantasy players alike tend to focus on the Big Six teams — not just at forward, but all around the pitch. However, if you load up entirely on those teams for your fantasy sides, you’re really missing out on a slew of diamonds in the rough that shine quite brightly.

Of the smaller sides, fantasy managers have struck gold with lower-priced stars from Bournemouth and Wolves in particular. Take a look at Bournemouth players’ performances:

  • Callum Wilson (97 points) is #3 at the forward position, and
  • Ryan Fraser (96 points) ties for #5 among midfielders

And for Wolves:

  • Raul Jimenez (85 points) ranks #6 among strikers,
  • Matt Doherty (83 points) is #5 among defenders, and
  • Rui Patricio (68 points) ties for #10 among keepers

Some other smaller sides have chipped in as well:

  • Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic (78 points) is #7 at forward, while Brighton’s Glenn Murray (71) is #9, and Vardy (66) is #10,
  • West Ham’s Felipe Anderson (101 points) is #4 among midfielders, Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson (96) ties for #5, Roberto Pereyra (95) is at #8, Everton’s Richarlison (93) is #9,
  • Leicester’s Ricardo Pereira (78 points) ties for #7 at defender, and
  • West Ham’s Lucasz Fabianski (77 points) is #3 and Cardiff’s Neil Etheridge (73) is #5 among keepers

It’s impossible to field a team stocked entirely with elite players from the big teams. So far, Bournemouth and Wolves in particular have rewarded fantasy managers, but thankfully that pair hasn’t been the only source of cut rate, outside the box production.

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[Note: Transfer information and prices came via www.transfermarkt.com. Player statistics came via the official Premier League and Premier League fantasy websites.]

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How are you reacting to the above takeaways with respect to your fantasy teams? What other lessons have you learned that will impact your tactics going forward? Let us know in the comments!

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