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Five Questions After the First Three EPL Games

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What big queries should be on our minds, and how do you answer them?

Andy Robertson - Liverpool FC - Premier League
Andrew Robertson led fantasy defenders with 213 points last season. He has only 6 so far this season, tying for 56th most at the position.
Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

The season is 38 games long, and we’ve finished three. So we’re 8% in and starting to get a feel for trends. What stands out so far? What questions do we need to answer for our fantasy teams to do well the remaining 92%?

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1. Are the Promoted Teams Really This Good (or at least Not That Bad)?

Aston Villa, Norwich, and Sheffield United have each won a game (Sheffield United has a draw on top of that). By comparison, do you know which EPL teams haven’t earned a win yet? Wolves (who finished 7th last year) and Watford (were 11th, now rock bottom). Even more impressively, none of the newcomers have been shut out across nine matches.

Norwich has scored 6 goals, which is tied for 3rd most (with Manchester United) behind only Manchester City and Liverpool. Sheffield United has conceded only three times, tying for 5th fewest, more than only Crystal Palace, Everton, Leicester, and Wolves. Aston Villa’s -1 goal differential is better than several teams including Chelsea.

As of now, none of the newly promoted sides are in the relegation zone. Of course, being so early, the table is bunched extremely tightly. Do you think all three teams can actually stay up? Will they provide more quality options than you expected? Will they punish fantasy managers who target them by picking their opponents? Or will the newcomers falter following their bright starts?

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2. Is It Time To Jettison Your Expensive Defenders?

Liverpool and Manchester City combined for 41 clean sheets in their 76 games (54%) in 2018-19. This campaign, they have only one from six chances (17%). That means that fantasy managers who splurged on the two teams’ pricey star goalkeepers (Alisson and Ederson) and defenders (Andrew Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Aymeric Laporte, and Kyle Walker) who racked up the fantasy points in 2018-19 have been left wanting this time around. The injury to Alisson, of course, hurt the most, affecting the whole ‘Pool defense (e.g. Adrian’s week-2 howler cost clean sheets all around).

Should you get rid of the defensive stars from those teams who have not provided anything close to good ROI so far, or is the lack of clean sheets merely an odd glitch that will sort itself out in short order? It’s not as if the Reds or Citizens are getting blitzed. The Reds have conceded exactly one goal in each game, while City has also allowed an average of 1.0 gpg. Do you know how many teams conceded 38 goals or fewer (1.0 gpg) last season? Only two: Liverpool and Manchester City.

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3. Which Unexpectedly Strong Starters Can Keep it Up?

You will see some of the usual suspects, but a couple odd names sure are mixed in atop the Premiership scoring leader board:

1(T). Teemu Pukki (Norwich City) - 5

1(T). Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) - 5

3(T). Sergio Aguero (Manchester City) - 4

3(T). Ashley Barnes (Burnley) - 4

5. Mo Salah (Liverpool) - 3

Furthermore, nine players have scored two goals each. You won’t be surprised to see Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Tottenham’s Harry Kane, and Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial among those. But aren’t you a bit shocked at the inclusion of Bournemouth’s Harry Wilson, Chelsea’s Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, Manchester United’s Daniel James, and West Ham’s Sebastian Haller?

Ashley Barnes - Burnley FC - Premier League
Ashley Barnes is opening eyes this season.
Photo by Rich Linley - CameraSport via Getty Images

It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s not entirely uncommon for a player from a non-Big Six side to score 20+ goals. Jamie Vardy delivered 20 goals for Leicester City in 2017-18 after hitting 24 in 2015-16, while Romelu Lukaku notched 25 for Everton in 2016-17, offering brilliant fantasy hauls for managers who got in on them early.

Can a striker such as Pukki, Barnes, Haller and/or anyone else turn the trick this season, or is that too much to ask? Pukki scored 29 goals last year, but that was in the Championship. Barnes has been a solid Premiership player for Burnley the past few years, but he has never notched more than 12 goals in a single season. Along the same lines, do you think a midfielder among Mount, Wilson, or James will keep his strong early form going with a 10+ goal return, or is that too optimistic?

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4. What Poor Attacking Performers Will Return to Form?

We’ve enjoyed those surprising performances mentioned in #4, but there have also been some painfully invisible starts for usually reliable offensive stars. Players such as Bournemouth’s Ryan Fraser (7 goals, 14 fantasy assists last season), Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha (10 & 11) and Luka Milivojevic (12 & 2), Everton’s Gylfi Sigurdsson (13 & 6) and Richarlison (13 & 3), Leicester’s Ayoze Perez (12 & 2 for Newcastle), Watford’s Gerard Deulofeu (10 & 5), and Wolves’ Diogo Jota (9 & 5) are among the big names who have yet to score a goal or even contribute an assist. And then there’s Christian Eriksen who has looked good when on the pitch, but his minutes have been severely limited while the European transfer window continues calling his name.

Naturally, fantasy managers holding such players are on edge, waiting for a breakout. Which among those slow-starting stars deserve keeping the faith, and who instead should be dropped like a bad habit?

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5. Will VAR Have No Impact at All on Scoring, or Perhaps Even Reduce It?

Over the summer, I looked at the impact that the introduction of VAR had in the 2018 Men’s World Cup and at the tail end of the 2018-19 Champions League, which led me to predict that the addition of VAR to the EPL in 2019-20 would likely increase the number of goals, with a significant bump to the share of goals scored from the penalty spot. So far, I’m eating some serious crow, as it looks like I was horribly wrong.

Part of the problem is the new handball rule. But my fundamental error was assuming that the basic ethos of the VAR system that we saw in the World Cup and Champions League — putting the utmost priority on having not only the willingness, but a determined commitment to get the call right, no matter what the original call was — would be the same in the EPL. That simply does not seem to be the case in the Premiership, which has been comparatively gun-shy.

In the World Cup and Champions League, the referees frequently went to the VAR box in order to take another look from various angles, and much more often than not ended up awarding penalty kicks after that review, whether they had originally seen them or not. From what we have seen so far in the EPL, the referees are not going to the VAR box, but instead are listening to the booth review; furthermore, the booth review generally is acting with extreme caution, merely reinforcing the referee’s original call with the utmost deference, rather than overturning the call when video evidence to the contrary would lead a reasonable, impartial observer to change it. Rather than following the lead of World Cup and Champions League by utilizing technology to its fullest and ensuring accuracy, the EPL version seems to be modeled after past seasons’ retroactive reviews regarding harsh fouls and suspensions, where only unseen actions could be judged, not those seen but misjudged.

There are four examples that have stood out to me as non-calls that clearly should have been overturned, leading to awarded penalties:

  • Manchester City v. Tottenham (Week 2): Erik Lamela mugged Aymeric Laporte on a Manchester City corner kick, doing his best imitation of an NFL football tackle that Dick Butkus would have been proud of. There was no PK call in real time, and VAR did not overturn that non-call.
  • Crystal Palace at Manchester United (Week 3): Martin Kelly grabbed and brought down Anthony Martial in the box, but there was no PK call in real time, and VAR kept it that way.
  • Manchester City at Bournemouth (Week 3): Jefferson Lerma tripped David Silva in the box, but there was no PK call in real time, and VAR demurred.
  • Tottenham v. Newcastle (Week 3): Jamaal Lascelles tripped and brought down Harry Kane in the box, but there was no PK call in real time, and VAR kept mum.
Anthony Martial is taken down by Martin Kelly - Manchester United v Crystal Palace - Premier League
Move along, nothing to see here either in real time or upon further review.
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Ask yourself these simple questions: If those plays involving LaPorte, Silva, and Martial had occurred in Champions League, would Manchester City and Manchester United have gotten the PK calls from VAR? (My answer: Yes, almost certainly.) If that situation with Kane had happened in the World Cup, would England have gotten the PK call via VAR? (My answer: Again, yes, almost certainly.)

What if you not only had Harry Kane in your fantasy team, but captained him due the seemingly favorable home match-up against Newcastle? What if you had David Silva, Aymeric Laporte or Sergio Aguero (City’s PK man) in your fantasy sides when they faced Tottenham and/or Bournemouth? How about if you had Anthony Martial (and either Marcus Rashford or Paul Pogba who presumably would have taken the PK) for the match against Crystal Palace? That’s a huge amount of (possible) fantasy points from goals, fantasy assists and bonus that you have lost!

Now that we have seen VAR in the first three weeks, it looks like we have a pretty good idea of how the areas of possible impact will play out. The two areas which are not open to interpretation — handball before goals, and offside — will see frequent overturned calls; while the new handball rule will take away scores, we should see increased goals from the refs allowing close offside situations to go without an immediate call.

The other two areas, which revolve around subjective judgment calls — mugging in the box on corner kicks/set pieces, and penalty kick decisions from open play — look like they might not add any scoring, as those original calls seem to have a nil or near-nil chance of being changed.

Everything taken together, there may be a negligible impact, or possibly even a net reduction in goals for the EPL, rather than the PK bonanza I envisioned based on what we saw at the World Cup and in Champions League.

How have your fantasy returns gone relative to your expectations for VAR? If you were counting on an increase in PK attempts and an overall bump in scoring, have you given up or are you hopeful that this is merely an early growing period and VAR application might change the rest of the season?

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(Note: Statistics used in the article came from the official fantasy Premier League site and the official Premier League site.)

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How do you answer the questions above, and how will those expectations influence your fantasy strategy? Are there any other queries you have? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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