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Early Fixture Thoughts

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Trying to find an angle to give us an early edge in the 2020-21 season.

Jose Mourinho embraces Harry Kane - Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
Two winners with points to prove in 2020-21
Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

On release of the 2020-21 season fixtures we can now sink our teeth into roster building for our game-week 1 squads. Opinions, ideas, and thoughts are flowing through all our fantasy football minds. Here are a few of mine:

An obvious move

Arsenal’s opening six fixtures are Fulham (a), West Ham (h), Liverpool (a), Sheffield (h), Manchester City (a) and Leicester (h). A mixed bag for Arteta’s improving side at first glance but with a potentially lovely opening pair of match-ups.

According to FPL, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finished the last two seasons with 22 goals, 7 assists, 10 clean sheen sheets in 2018-19 plus 22 goals, 5 assists, 7 clean sheets in 2019-20. A consistent player, his performance in the FA Cup final showed that even at 31, he is still in his prime.

Game-weeks 1 and 2 see him face Fulham and West Ham, two sides not known for defensive security. Last season, Fulham conceded more than a goal per game overall, 26 goals in 23 games at home. The possession game built by Scott Parker worked well against the abilities within the Championship, but I am not convinced his current squad can afford continue those tactics in the Premier League. They will not have faced anything like the pressing game they can expect to see from a confident Arsenal side. West Ham meanwhile conceded 62 goals in the 38 league games last season and while they ended the season quite well, that was due to the ability with the ball not so much without it.

In game weeks 3-5, Arsenal’s opponents get tougher. A trip to Anfield to face the champions, the defensive block of Sheffield and a trip to Manchester City after the break. In the same period, City themselves have Leicester, Leeds and Arsenal while United face Brighton, Spurs and Newcastle. With PEA the joint most expensive player in FPL it is an easy move to switch him to whichever Manchester man caught your eye in game-week 2.

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The Champions

At this stage Liverpool look a level above City and a couple above everyone else, clearly the team to beat. Having said that, Liverpool face a new challenge this season. In the previous three seasons they have been the team chasing, the side not quite favourite to win the competition but a contender. Now that they’re being chased, Klopp’s Reds have a different pressure on them.

Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino are all 28, and the immense Virgil Van Dyke is 29. They are in their primes at the peak of their powers, but they have also achieved so much in the last couple seasons. Can we be sure they still have the hunger? Do they have a big enough threat from younger player players on the bench itching to take their first team spots? Klopp is a brilliant manager and it will be interesting to watch to see if he can dismantle this squad and build another just as successful. In the very short term, it looks increasingly likely that they may be signing Thiago from Bayern Munich. If that happens, he will add a new dimension to the Liverpool midfield and a whole new set of problems for the opposition.

As brilliant as Liverpool have been, teams are familiar with them, they know what to expect, they know what they do well and not so well. We saw some signs post-lockdown (and especially post title-clinch) with some teams/managers figuring out ways of exploiting the space exposed when Robertson and Trent bomb forward. We often saw opposition playing their most dangerous attackers against Joe Gomez. Will we see teams gain more success in this area, or will Klopp adapt?

The opening six fixtures look tricky to me: Leeds (h), Chelsea (a), Arsenal (h), Aston Villa (a), Everton (a), Sheff Utd (h). Two sides that have title challenge aspirations in Chelsea/Arsenal, a derby game, two defensive sides, and a Championship winning Marcelo Bielsa side spell headaches in my eyes.

My FPL plan had been to double up on the Liverpool defense. Trent Alexander-Arnold at 7.5m, Andrew Robertson at 7m and Virgil Van Dyke at 6.5m are all significantly under-priced. Last FPL season, only three players scored more than Trent’s 210 points: KDB 251, Salah 233 and Mane 221. Jamie Vardy matched his 210, and all four will cost way more than Tent will. In the whole game, only 9 players scored more than VVD last season. I still like the double up long term, but now I think I may wait until ‘Pool’s fixtures look a little more pleasing, possibly starting from game week 6 and the home game hosting Sheffield.

If these opening games do present a challenge for Klopp’s boys, then clean sheets may not be common, so they are going to need their tremendous trio up front to score the goals. Salah 12m, Mane 12m and Firmino 9.5m are all pricey but all quality. Due to their cost, it looks a straight choice between Salah and Mane. Salah’s penalty duties and slightly more explosive upside potential gives him the edge. Firmino’s price is a complete frustration for me. Having had a quieter goalscoring season in 2019-20 when scoring single figures for goals for the first time, I thought FPL may price him something like 8.5m to try and tempt a few fantasy managers. I am always tempted by proven players who have had one quiet season, that they could explode the next. We saw it at the highest level with KDB and at the mid-range level with Gabriel Jesus last season. I have a feeling we may see Firmino similarly improve his returns this season. Still with that price I am not sure I will ever select him.

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The Blues Attack

Chelsea face Brighton (h), Liverpool (a), West Brom (h), Crystal Palace (a), Southampton (h), and Manchester United (A) in their opening six games. The fixture computer has been kind to Frank. There is the obvious ‘Pool fixture concern, but I am not in the business of buying Chelsea defensive assets at this stage. It is the Blues’ attack that interests, and with Liverpool’s defense being far from watertight post lockdown, I see Chelsea scoring in that game as well.

With the attacking options available, there will be questions about how Lampard sets up his side this season. The obvious pick is Timo Werner, an explosive player. He is in many early FPL drafts. Many predict Werner will play either central or on the left of a front three. That makes sense for the ‘Pool game and longer term, but in the early weeks I can see a chance Werner play in a role similar to what he enjoyed at Red Bull Leipzig. There he seemed at his most effective playing off/with a second forward, ideally one who can hold up possession and link play for Werner to make runs beyond. Olivier Giroud seems to be enjoying a renaissance in his career, so he may just be the perfect foil for Werner.

If Christian Pulisic is fit for the opening week, then at 8.5m he looks a steal. If he is not, then you can add him to your shopping list with all your GW-2 City and United targets.

Hakim Ziyech priced at 8m is a wait and see for me. His performances in the Champions League scream potential, and he has been training with the club for weeks. No summer signings will have more time than Ziyech to settle into the club. An impressive preseason showing could change my opinion and see him take Pulisic’s spot on my squad, knowing we can make this simple switch when he returns.

Just for those opening games, Mason Mount interests me. Mount was excellent in the season-ending FA Cup games, and there seems to be a feeling he is Frank’s boy within the squad. He started the 2019-20 season fast, loves a shot, and will have his share of free kicks. The possible arrival of Kai Havertz puts pressure on Mount to respond. Havertz is a special talent and would seem set to take the central attacking role behind the forward. Mount may then be moved back deeper positionally when that happens, but Havertz has yet to be signed, and even when he will need to settle. I have a feeling Mount will start fast again this season, and with the improvements to Chelsea’s attack, synchronicity may provide him increased returns himself. His 7m price in FPL irritates, too much for his rotation risk, but if you believe the Chelsea games will be full of goals, then you could try the blues double up and dump Mount as soon as Havertz steals his place in the 1st team.

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Problems for Palace

Crystal Palace had a terrible, relegation worthy run to end the 2019-20 season. A lack of investment in the first team plus several injuries, and you have yourself some concerned Eagles fans. Roy Hodgson brings experience and calmness, but the side relies too much on Wilfred Zaha in attack, and those injuries in defense really show. They lost five of their last six games, conceding 13 (!) and failing to score in all of them.

Palace’s opening four are Southampton (h), Man Utd (a), Everton (h) and Chelsea (a). Just for those games alone, having an opposing player or two each week could see a steady stream of points.

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One for the gamblers out there

Leicester’s collapse from New Year’s onward saw the Foxes blow a 14-point lead over Man United to fumble their Champions League spot. Injuries hit them hard: Both attacking fullbacks, Pereira and Chilwell, went missing, as did playmaker James Maddison. Jamie Vardy scored only six goals from game-week 20 through 38, and four of those came as braces. The Foxes won only four of their last 17 league games; that’s near relegation form.

Coming into the new season, Pereira is still injured, Jonny Evans is suspended, and Chilwell looks like leaving for Chelsea. It does not look great does it!

Still, overall, Brendon Rogers has produced a side largely on the upswing, and the fixtures to start this season are nice: West Brom (a), Burnley (h), Man City (a), West Ham (h), Aston Villa (h) and Arsenal (a).

Jamie Vardy is getting on, but he is the current golden boot winner and a clear flat track bully. Season long, he scored 23 goals and assisted 7. Of those 30 attacking returns, 24 came against sides who finished 10th or below.

Helping him will be the return of James Maddison. Maddison’s growth, even before the injury, slowed in his second season in the league. Maybe rumours of Man Utd sniffing around distracted him a little. Without that on his mind for the upcoming season, he can direct his focus on returning to form. In 2019-20 FPL, Maddison played 207 fewer minutes than in 2018-19 but earned only 12 fewer FPL points. That surprised me, considering how he played compared to the season before. He is clearly a hot and cold player, one day looking like world beater and the next day turning invisible.

We saw Rodgers play around with a front two late last season, utilizing a central attacker from midfield in support, a role made for Maddison. Perhaps that was the manager trying anything to spark some form, or maybe it is the start of the evolving system of play he intends to bring in.

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Second Season Success

First up, the normal preseason discussion on Harry Kane: I watched him play live last September, and he looked a shell of the player who had run wild in the Premier League previously. His movement was reduced; there was nothing explosive in his play. He seemed to be playing well within himself, but I got the impression that reserve may not be by choice. He looked a payer that needed both a physical and mental break to find fitness and his mojo.

An injury and a pandemic gave Kane those breathers he needed. As the 2019-20 season ended, he looked like a player who was just coming into fitness/sharpness. The beauty with such a short turnaround between seasons is that the minimum break will hardly take away his momentum. I am not sure he will ever be the relentless goal machine he was a couple years ago, but in the post-lockdown period, I think we saw more of the old Kane than we had for a long while. Prior we saw him playing in midfield at times way too often, but post-lockdown was different; we saw Harry play much further forward. We even saw him making some driving runs into the box. He is guaranteed to start, has pens, and remains a world class finisher. At 10.5m, FPL offers the perfect price to tempt.

For Spurs in general, add the Jose factor. History shows us that Mourinho teams are at their best in his second season. Love him or hate him, he’s a manager who squeezes success out of his squad (even if it burns them out). Even in his most recent appointment prior to Spurs at Manchester United, he won two cups and finished second in the league during his second season.

We saw improvements in his team in project Restart; the squad adapted to the tactical demands Jose places on his players. Kane returned as did Son, and while he is not a fantasy option, Lo Celso secured a first team place. The man from Argentina is a much better player than we saw in his first few games in England, and I think his influence grew as he settled and as the manger placed his faith in him. The signing of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will fill the defensive shield role, adding to the improving Spurs defensive system we saw, and I think it’s possible Spurs are flying high in stealth-mode, off most fantasy managers’ radar (but that will change if the wild rumors of Gareth Bale’s return materialize).

Everton (h), Southampton (a), Palace (h), Brighton (a) West Ham (h) and Burnley (a) serve up a delectable run of opening fixtures. Everton’s rebuilding has lost tempo thanks to Covid 19; Saints will have a brand-new defense; Brighton, Palace and the Hammers all ship goals wholesale; and Burnley may not have Pope in goal if the transfer rumours are accurate.

During their last six games, Spurs conceded just three goals. Hugo Lloris costing 5.5m is a little too steep a price for me to pay for a keeper, but there is a potential defensive option that could be a sneaky one. At the end of last season, Eric Dier seemed to have nailed down a starting spot. Priced at 5m and always a goal threat, he is on my shortlist if Spurs do not sign a new central defender.

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Leeds

The champions of the Championship start with Liverpool (a), Fulham (h), Sheff Utd (a) and Man City (h) Wolverhampton (h) and Villa (a). At first glance, the fixtures may put you off, but they may just suit a side with plenty of character.

Their fans are confident and rightly so. If you haven’t watched a Bielsea side, you are in for a treat. I think missing out on promotion a season ago gave the squad longer to learn his very demanding system. The pattern has been that his sides are often at their strongest in the first half of the season, and they may well catch some teams unprepared. Like Sheffield from last season, they will be a handful... just in a very different style.

Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling seem to be getting plenty of support, and both are priced at 4.5m. Dallas offers a potential out-of-position play. In midfield, Mateusz Klich 5.5m was a player who caught my fantasy eye when watching them play. He always seems to be in the right areas during attacks, and truthfully he should have scored even more. Some say that if you keep getting in the right areas, then the goals will come; we shall see. He will also have penalty duties to help his returns.

Pablo Hernandez was the playmaker of the side, racking up 9 goals and 9 assists. At age 35, he will probably become a support player, but he will start at least. Finally, we come to Patrick Bamford 5.5m, scorer of 16 goals last season. He should have had double that from the chances his teammates created. His poor finishing aside, he will likely start the season. It takes time to adapt to what Bielsa wants, so Bamford will get a chance to show the faith Bielse has put in him is warranted.

A final note: As seen at Bamford, Bielsa is very loyal to his players. He plays a regular starting 11 and keeps faith in players when they are out of form, which is something fantasy managers enjoy. He has instilled “esprit de corps”, an élan a la Elland Road, and that will be their strength coming in to 2020-21.

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Three weeks from the start of the season, what are your thoughts now that we know the fixtures? What jokers are popping out of the transfer deck? Where do you see bargains? What high-priced stars will be worth their salt? Who will be the greatest disappointment? Please share in the comments!

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