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10 Questions for the Upcoming FPL Season

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What queries should be mulled over in the quest for success this year?

Mohamed Salah - Liverpool Pre-Season Training Session - Premier League
Is Mohamed Salah no longer a must-have for our fantasy teams?
Photo by John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

It’s always easy looking back at lessons from last season, but it’s naturally far trickier trying to peer into the future. Even so, it’s vitally important to “answer” the big questions we have when building our fantasy teams ahead of the upcoming EPL campaign. Let’s investigate 10 key topics that should be on our minds and influence our strategy.

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1. Will Manchester City regain form as the best team, or can Liverpool keep up its winning ways?

Manchester City not only won the EPL title in 2017-18 and 2018-19, it did so while dominating in the goal differential category. The Citizens actually were the best team on paper again in 2019-20, taking honors with the goal differential stat for the third straight campaign. But of course the Reds took the title last season, and it wasn’t even close thanks to churning out a lot of one-goal victories, while the Sky Blues enjoyed plenty of lopsided wins but also came out on the losing end a surprising number of times.

Comparison of Manchester City and Liverpool, Past Three Seasons

TEAM 2017-18 Pts. 2017-18 Diff. 2018-19 Pts. 2018-19 Diff. 2019-20 Pts. 2019-20 Diff.
TEAM 2017-18 Pts. 2017-18 Diff. 2018-19 Pts. 2018-19 Diff. 2019-20 Pts. 2019-20 Diff.
Manchester City 100 +79 98 +72 81 +67
Liverpool 75 +46 97 +67 99 +52

Fantasy managers would surely load up on the maximum three players for Manchester City or Liverpool if they could be sure either team would come out ahead in both league points and differential. If it seems likely that those two categories will again be split, though, it may be more prudent to spread one’s selections out a bit more. Do you expect one team to dominate or do you think it will be more even? Due to that assessment, how many players from those two star-studded sides do you see as vital to build your FPL teams around?

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2. Can Chelsea or Manchester United challenge for the title?

Last summer, Chelsea was facing bleak prospects from a transfer ban, the departure of superstar Eden Hazard and the welcome of Frank Lampart as a new, untested manager. Meanwhile, the honeymoon had soured on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as Manchester United had limped to a sixth place finish, missing out on Champions League for the third time in four seasons. If you’d told Blues’ or Red Devils’ fans ahead of 2019-20 that they would finish in the top four, they would have taken that happily in a heartbeat. Of course, they were far from dominant, as Chelsea and Manchester United were actually closer in points to 19th place Watford than they were to title winners Liverpool.

Manchester United comes in with plenty of momentum, finishing unbeaten in the final 14 games, much of that success surely owed to the addition of winter transfer Bruno Fernandes, the return to health of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, and the emergence of Mason Greenwood. If the team can stay healthy and happy, and if the defense can keep up its improved play — nine of the side’s 13 clean sheets came in those final 14 games — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s crew have to feel they can play with anybody, giving them a puncher’s chance at taking the crown. Now they have further bolstered the side by adding attacking midfielder Donny van de Beek from Ajax. Do you think they might grab the EPL trophy for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure?

Christian Pulisic was limited to only 1,717 minutes due to acclimation and injury, so a full second season from the dazzling U.S. international would be an enormous boon to the Chelsea offense. With the transfer ban lifted, Frank Lampard became the proverbial kid in a candy store holding an absolutely bursting wallet. The Blues have brought in Timo Werner from RB Leipzig and Hakim Ziyech from Ajax to further bolster the offense, while attacking midfielder Kai Havertz is reportedly an imminent addition from Bayer Leverkusen, as wingers Pedro and Willian have departed.

However, Chelsea’s problem wasn’t in attack; it was in defense. The world’s most expensive keeper, Kepa Arizabalaga, was simply a disaster with an astonishing 47 goals conceded against only 55 saves, and the central defenders weren’t exactly a huge amount of help.

Starring in his defensive midfield role, N’Golo Kante was a vital reason that Leicester took the EPL title in 2015-16 followed by Chelsea in 2016-17. Kante was limited to only 1,730’ due to injury last season. As with Pulisic in attack, one might think that a full season from Kante would be a big boost to the defense. But it may not matter much, as Kante has actually been pushed further up the pitch into more of an attacking position the past two seasons by Maurizio Sarri and Lampard, leaving Jorginho or Mateo Kovacic at his former spot. The two are assuredly players with many talents, but either is a definite downgrade from the likes of Kante (or predecessor Nemanja Matic) with respect to breaking up the opposing attack and protecting the Blues’ back line.

Chelsea didn’t limit itself to attack in the summer transfer market, as wing back Ben Chilwell arrived from Leicester, although he’s more of an attacking threat than a defensive stalwart. After coming over via free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain, Thiago Silva should help in central defense, but goalkeeper remains a dumpster fire. If the squad remains as is, can the Blues simply outscore the opposition, or will their keeper issues keep them from challenging to be the league’s best? And if Lampard is able to bring in a replacement for Kepa, are you on board with Chelsea’s title hopes this season?

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3. Can a struggling “Big Six” team (Arsenal or Tottenham) or an “outsider” side (such as Everton, Leicester, Sheffield United or Wolves) capture a top four finish in 2020-21?

Before last season, given so much uncertainty at Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham, everybody knew that the hunt for the Champions League spots could bring a surprise or two. And it nearly happened! Leicester was knocked out of the top four race by Manchester United on the final day. Wolves finished in 7th, just missing out on Europa League due to Arsenal’s FA Cup victory. Sheffield United held top-four dreams for much of the season, before enduring a late poor run of form and fading to 9th. But with such an excellent defense — conceding the 4th fewest goals — the Blades demonstrated that they are a tough out.

After finishing in the top four each of the prior four campaigns, and with the pocketbook surprisingly opening wide for pricey summer 2019 transfer Tanguy Ndombele, Spurs endured a shockingly bad start last year under Mauricio Pochettino, who was sacked with the team mired in 14th place after 12 contests. Upon his return to the EPL, Jose Mourinho managed to bring the Lilywhites up to 6th place at the finish. In the summer transfer window, Spurs have brought in Matt Doherty from Wolves (ostensibly to replace Serge Aurier at right wingback) and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg from Southampton (likely to take the defensive midfield spot from Harry Winks).

Similarly enduring their own bust with an expensive summer 2019 transfer in attack (Nicolas Pepe), north London rivals Arsenal gave Unai Emery the pink slip after 13 games with the Gunners in 8th place at the time. Mikel Arteta took over, and the team ended up just as they were at Emery’s exit, in 8th place. Providing hope for the upcoming season, the team did capture two particularly impressive EPL wins after the restart — Liverpool and Wolves. But it was the brilliant FA Cup title run that will give even more momentum for Arsenal, who beat Sheffield United in the quarters, Manchester City in the semis, and Chelsea in the final to take the crown.

The surprisingly sluggish Arsenal attack (only 56 goals in 2019-20, 17 fewer than the 73 scored in 2018-19) gains a boost with the addition of winger Willian from Chelsea. With the Gunners having conceded 48+ goals each of the past three seasons, central defense has been a long-time concern, so supporters will hope that the issue has finally been addressed with the transfer of Gabriel Magalhaes from Lille and the loan recall of William Saliba.

Everton had finished in the top eight at each turn from 2016-17 through 2018-19, taking 5th as recently as 2013-14. So with the Toffees stuck in the relegation zone at 18th place the board sacked Marco Silva after 15 games last year. A major coup came in the surprise hire of world renowned Carlo Ancelotti, and he guided Everton to a 12th place finish. The Toffees scored only 44 goals all season, a lackluster tally (only one more than Burnley and just three more than Aston Villa). After already reportedly bringing in central midfielder Allan from Napoli, Ancelotti may soon be supplied with the talent (on loan) of Real Madrid attacking midfielder James Rodriguez, who disappointed at Real Madrid, but we all fondly remember his exploits for Colombia as the breakout star of the 2014 World Cup.

Shall we see even more magic from Brendan Rodgers, Nuno Espirito Santo and/or Chris Wilder who have proven their mettle as high quality EPL managers? Can Mourinho, Arteta, and/or Ancelotti take further steps forward in their first full seasons with their clubs? Will we see a shake-up in the Champions League and Europa League picture next season, or shall the story remain the same?

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4. Can Mohamed Salah reverse his decline?

The Pharaoh superstar came onto the scene like gangbusters in 2017-18, capturing the EPL Golden Boot trophy while scoring by far the most FPL points that season. In 2018-19 Salah came back down to earth, merely sharing the Golden Boot and barely nipping Eden Hazard for most points in FPL. 2019-20 saw further slippage as he ranked 5th in goals and 2nd in points, well behind Kevin De Bruyne. The clear downward trend has to be at least a bit concerning.

Mohamed Salah, Past Three Seasons

Season Goals Fantasy Assists FPL Points
Season Goals Fantasy Assists FPL Points
2017-18 32 12 303
2018-19 22 12 259
2019-20 19 10 233

At £12.0m, Salah is in a three-way tie for priciest player in FPL, which makes budgeting tricky. If you think he’ll bounce back and score the most points, grabbing Salah is a no-brainer. But if you reckon that KDB will repeat for that honor, or if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bruno Fernandes, Sadio Mane, Raheem Sterling or someone else will reign supreme, leaving Mo out of your team will be the wise course of action. What do you in see in store for Salah next season, and is he going to be in your Week 1 team? Or are you cautiously avoiding him?

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5. Will Midfield Continue to Dominate the Position Ranks, or Can a Striker Regain its Status?

Last season, midfielders occupied the highest three slots among FPL points earners, with KDB (251 points), Salah (233) and Sadio Mane (221) leading the way. The most productive forward, Jamie Vardy, merely matched DEFENDER Trent Alexander-Arnold’s output with 210 points. Beyond that, Arsenal star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, scorer of 22 goals each of the past two campaigns, has been reclassified from forward to midfielder. Taking all of that into account, it would seem sensible to start with a focus on the midfield when building our FPL teams.

Of course, we all remember the days of wine and roses back in the 2010s when forwards Sergio Aguero, Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez scored 25+ (and sometimes even 30+) goals to serve as the centerpieces of our fantasy sides. Can a striker (or two or three) get back to such brilliant form again, displacing the midfielders and reclaiming the forward position’s supreme relevance?

Crystal Palace v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
Are you banking on Harry Kane to regain his 30-goal form?
Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images

Or is it unnecessary for Aguero or Kane to recapture their form for strikers to dominate? In recent seasons the EPL has lacked the likes of international superstars up front such as Antoine Griezmann, Erling Haaland, Ciro Immobile, Robert Lewandowski, Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Timo Werner, as FPL has settled for being led by its midfield mavens. Now Werner has come to Chelsea from RB Leipzig, and Messi is rumored to want out of FC Barcelona so he can rejoin former manager Pep Guardiola, now at Manchester City. If the megastar does manage to join the Sky Blues, might Messi and Werner sit atop the fantasy scoring ranks on their own?

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6. Which newly promoted team will feature the most/best fantasy-worthy options?

Last season, Sheffield United enjoyed a brilliant campaign, particularly at the back end, as Dean Henderson finished 2nd at the goalkeeping position in FPL, and four Blades — John Lundstram, Enda Stevens, George Baldock and John Egan — ranked in the top 10 among defenders. Otherwise, Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish placed in the top 10. In 2018-19, Cardiff keeper Neil Etheridge as well as Wolves forward Raul Jimenez and defender Matt Doherty were the standouts for the then-incoming class.

The newly promoted sides offer temptation in that, generally lacking recent FPL histories, their stars tend to be affordable, and getting in on the right players early can be a savvy way to craft successful fantasy teams. Of course, they can also offer a cautionary tale as we saw an absolute train wreck from Norwich after a strong start — Teemu Pukki and Todd Cantwell turned from sensational to FPL poison.

Do you expect any of the three incoming sides — Leeds, West Brom and Fulham — will replicate Sheffield United’s defensive success from last season? In attack, does anybody jump out at you as the next Jack Grealish or Raul Jimenez? (If you haven’t already, be sure to check out NMA’s look at Leeds from Ali, preview of West Brom by PPQ and scouting report for Fulham via Paul.)

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7. Might David Silva’s departure ease Pep Roulette in the Manchester City midfield?

One year after defender Vincent Kompany departed, another Manchester City living legend, midfielder David Silva, said goodbye. 60 goals, 93 assists, four EPL titles, but that doesn’t really tell the story. For David Silva, it was about the beauty and joy of watching him play, the way he controlled the game like a magician, his creative passing, his effortless dribbling, his brilliant vision, his cool-as-a-cucumber calm.

FBL-ENG-PR-MAN CITY-EVERTON
Has David Silva passed the baton to Phil Foden?
Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Now that the Spaniard and his 1,833 minutes from last season are gone, it should theoretically open up some playing time for the rest of the team. Kevin de Bruyne (2,790’) and Raheem Sterling (2,651’) should naturally continue to be automatic starters. If no new players are brought in to add to the midfield competition, fantasy managers would love to see one or two more regular starters emerge from among Bernardo Silva (2,021 minutes), Ilkay Gundogan (2,012’), Riyad Mahrez (1,934’) and Phil Foden (888’). The fear is that the quartet could easily remain stuck in Pep Roulette. Are you willing to take a chance on any at the position aside from KDB and Sterling, or is it too risky to hope for consistent playing time?

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8. How much will Bruno Fernandes fall off in his first full season?

After coming over from Sporting in January, Bruno Fernandes was an absolute sensation, becoming a must-have in all fantasy formats. In only 14 games, Bruno racked up eight goals and fantasy assists each, earning 117 points in FPL (8.4 ppg), a more prolific average than FPL’s top scorer, Kevin De Bruyne (7.2 ppg).

The problem, of course, with winter transfers is the small sample size after their introduction. It’s difficult to keep up that type of production over the course of an entire season, especially after opposition staffers have had an off-season to analyze video. We can look to the examples of Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Leicester’s Youri Tielemans, the star winter transfers of 2017-18 and 2018-19, respectively, for an idea of how Fernandes might fare next season.

Falloff from Aubameyang & Tielemans in their First Full Season

PLAYER 1st Seas. Gms. 1st Seas. Pts. 1st Seas. PPG 2nd Seas. Gms. 2nd Seas. Pts. 2nd Seas. PPG PPG Falloff
PLAYER 1st Seas. Gms. 1st Seas. Pts. 1st Seas. PPG 2nd Seas. Gms. 2nd Seas. Pts. 2nd Seas. PPG PPG Falloff
Aubameyang 13 87 6.7 ppg 36 205 5.7 ppg -18%
Tielemans 13 63 4.8 ppg 37 117 3.2 ppg -33%

How much do you foresee Fernandes falling off? Will he tail just little (like Aubameyang) or a lot (like Tielemans)? Given your expectation, is Fernandes worth the outlay of £10.5m or not?

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9. How many players from the teams who blank in GW1 will you start the season with in your fantasy side?

Due to play extending deep into the summer as fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, four teams will not play in GW1: Aston Villa, Burnley, Manchester City and Manchester United. Before the fixture release, many fantasy managers were planning on starting with several among popular players such as Jack Grealish, Nick Pope, Charlie Taylor, Erik Pieters, James Tarkowski, Chris Wood, Ederson, Nathan Ake, Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Sergio Aguero, Dean Henderson, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. (PHEW!)

The news of the four-team blank throws a serious wrench into those original plans for fantasy managers. Are you going to turn a blind eye and keep your original team? It’s just one week after all, no big deal right? Will you keep one or two of those players, stashing them on your bench for the opener to ease the need for transfers immediately after? Might you avoid them at the start entirely, looking instead to gradually add them as chance allows? In the boldest option, are you already planning to use a fairly early first half Wildcard chip? What strategy regarding assets from the four GW1 blank teams do you reckon will pay off best?

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10. Can the EPL get VAR right, or is it a lost cause?

I got a lot right last season, but I made my share of mistakes, too. In the latter regard, my biggest error had to be expecting VAR to add to the goal tally and boost our fantasy fortunes in the form of awarding more penalty kicks upon review as it had in Champions League and the World Cup. Instead, EPL’s VAR doctrine actually seemed to take more scores away on balance, and we fantasy managers went ballistic seeing loads of goals/assists from our players vanish into puffs of misplaced pixels, along with countless expected penalty kicks that went unawarded.

One problem was the new handball rule which disallowed all goals that followed any handball, whether the referee would have actually called a handball infraction, seen or not. Given that there appeared to be little groundswell from fans or pundits calling for the addition of that rule, combined with the fact that that it doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere in the footballing world (for good reason), I think most would turn cartwheels if the handball rule were abolished.

The other major fundamental problem is the lack of a desire from the EPL to prioritize simply getting the call right. Isn’t that what it’s there for? In the Champions League and World Cup, whenever a penalty call or possible penalty call was in doubt, the referee went to the monitor. If it looked like a penalty, the ref awarded it; if it didn’t look like a penalty, the ref did not award it. Simple, right? Well, in the EPL, the ref rarely went to the monitor, and the VAR booth rarely pressed its case to change a blown call to the right one, seemingly prioritizing soothing the referee’s ego over making correct rulings. If a ref didn’t call a penalty in real time, even when to the average (or expert) view it looked like an obvious, blatant, 100% penalty, the non-call would generally not be overruled. Infuriating!

(Another problem was lack of consistency when it came to red cards. It would be very, very good if they could sort that one out, but from a fantasy standpoint it’s not nearly as meaningful as the other issues.)

Week after week, game after game, fans expressed dismay over the VAR system (and its unfortunate interaction with the silly handball rule), reaching the point where many (perhaps most) wanted to see it gone. Now that the decision makers have had a summer (not to mention the lengthy lockdown) to render judgment on what worked (not much) and what didn’t (nearly everything), will they summon the sense to improve the system adequately? Can they swallow English pride long enough to incorporate lessons learned in France and Germany? Will they get rid of VAR entirely (unlikely)? Or will they leave it as is, inflicting continued incredulous suffering upon EPL fans and fantasy managers?

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[NOTE: EPL statistics and fantasy scoring info came from the official Premier League website and official fantasy Premier League website.]

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How do you answer my queries in advance of the EPL season? What else is on your mind as you wonder how best to assemble your fantasy team? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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