Our Gameweek 23 coverage ends with this critique of a player, team and discussion point that attracted our interest in the weekend’s matches.
A perhaps overlooked Liverpool asset and Unai Emery’s tactical changes are analysed, while we take yet another look at chip strategies for the months ahead.
The Player – Sadio Mane
The early-season notion that Sadio Mane (£9.5m) might be a way of “covering” Mohamed Salah (£13.6m) in 2018/19 appears to have been debunked over the last few months, with the Egyptian’s six double-digit hauls in eight Gameweeks, captaincy popularity and effective ownership punishing the majority of those who went without Salah – owning Mane or otherwise – over the festive period and into January.
Despite costing over £4.0m more in FPL, Salah is still proving to be better value than Mane at this stage of the season, returning 13.1 points per million spent compared to Mane’s 12.1.
So if the Senegalese midfielder is not a viable midfield alternative to Salah, might the former Southampton winger instead be a way of supplementing Salah’s points in the weeks ahead?
Tripling-up on Liverpool assets has been a source of discussion in the Fantasy community over the last week or so, particularly after the Reds were dumped out of the FA Cup by Wolverhampton Wanderers – thus guaranteeing them a Premier League fixture in the blank Gameweeks of 27, 31 and 33.
Salah, Andrew Robertson (£6.7m), Virgil van Dijk (£6.5m), the soon-to-be fit-again Trent Alexander-Arnold (£5.2m) and the in-form Roberto Firmino (£9.3m) are, of course, stand-out options from which to perm three FPL assets from.
With Eden Hazard (£11.0m) flattering to deceive at Chelsea, Spurs assets either unavailable or playing in an understrength side and Manchester City set for a blank Gameweek 27 (the return of Benjamin Mendy (£6.1m) potentially impacting on Leroy Sane‘s (£9.7m) game-time, too), could Mane re-enter the premium midfield equation?
The Reds rank top of our Season Ticker for ‘attack’ over the next eight Gameweeks and have scored more goals than any other Premier League side since the start of December.
Since returning to the starting XI in Gameweek 17 following injury, Mane has scored on three occasions – a figure dwarfed by Salah (six goals, three assists) and Firmino (five goals).
Hazard (three goals, two assists), Sane (two goals, four assists) and Raheem Sterling (£11.3m – two goals, three assists) can all beat Mane’s output, too.
It should be said, though, that Liverpool have played Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City during the period analysed – no other “big six” club had it so tough.
Over the seven Gameweeks in question, Mane is matching Salah for attempts on goal and shots in the box – Richarlison and Paul Pogba are the only two FPL midfielders to have registered more of either.
Again, Pogba and Salah are the only two players in Mane’s position to have recorded more shots on target from Gameweeks 17-23.
Mane’s expected goal involvement (xGI) is sixth-best among FPL midfielders over that period despite the tricky nature of some of Liverpool’s fixtures, with the Senegal international being sandwiched by Sane and Sterling (there being little to separate that trio).
On Saturday, Mane was deployed on the right flank in a 4-2-3-1 as Naby Keita (£7.2m) took up the Senegal midfielder’s usual role on the left wing.
The experiment didn’t really pay off as Keita turned in a disappointing display and Mane struggled to get into the game in the opening 45 minutes.
Mane became increasingly prominent after a switch to the left flank in the second half and the withdrawal of Keita, going on to score a stoppage-time goal and rack up more attempts on goal, efforts on target and shots in the box than any player on show.
Mane also matched Salah’s penalty box touch count for the day.
Fantasy managers would be understandably hesitant to gamble on Mane just yet given the other premium options available but with his FPL ownership now at its lowest since Gameweek 1, the Senegalese midfielder is – if not quite a “differential” – an alternative name to add into the mix as we attempt to navigate the blanks ahead.
The Team – Arsenal
Arsenal sit second in our Season Ticker for the next five Gameweeks and enjoy home matches against Cardiff City, Southampton and Bournemouth during that period, also travelling to West Yorkshire to face bottom-of-the-table Huddersfield Town.
The Gunners warmed up for their appealing run of fixtures with an eye-catching victory over Chelsea at the Emirates on Saturday, their second success over a fellow “big six” club in the six league matches contested in 2018/19.
Unai Emery has been malleable with his tactics this season as he gets to grips with the abilities and limitations of his new charges, switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 and back again – often during matches.
Saturday saw the north London side line up in a 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 diamond, with Aaron Ramsey (£7.2m) starting as an attacking midfielder in behind a front two of Alexandre Lacazette (£9.3m) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (£11.3m).
The system is an appealing one on paper from a Fantasy perspective and especially for those with one of Arsenal’s premium forward pair, given that rotation (or a reverse “out of position” deployment) wouldn’t be quite the worry it is when the Gunners play with one central striker.
There wasn’t too much wrong with Lacazette and Aubameyang’s underlying attacking stats in this system either, with the pair racking up a combined 11 penalty box touches and six attempts on goal – decent enough KPIs in a match of this magnitude.
The reasons for adopting this system against Chelsea would have been varied but there was little doubt that a primary objective of this formation was to stifle Jorginho in the “regista” role, with Emery aware that the Italian midfielder – on a good day – is crucial to the tempo of the Blues’ play.
We worked to do the pressing on their centre-backs and Jorginho. You can get closer to their blocks, transition very quickly and control the match with the ball in this pressure.
A criticism of this formation is that it leaves Arsenal very narrow and exposed down the flanks, particularly given that their full-backs – Hector Bellerin (£5.4m) and Sead Kolasinac (£4.9m), in this case – are attack-minded in nature and not renowned for their defensive aptitude.
Bellerin and Kolasinac fared well enough in that regard against Chelsea but the system was heavily reliant on some industrious work from Matteo Guendouzi (£4.4m) and Lucas Torreira (£4.9m) in covering their respective full-backs, with both defensive midfielders forced wide when out of possession.
The formation was perhaps ideal for Gameweek 23, with Arsenal enjoying only 35.4% of possession and reliant on the solidity of a central midfield three to render Chelsea’s dominance of the ball largely meaningless – the Blues having only one shot on target.
Is Emery likely to roll out this system against the likes of Cardiff, Southampton and Bournemouth, though?
Three defensive midfielders seems a little excessive for those forthcoming home fixtures and in the brief moments we have seen the formation previously used, Arsenal have struggled to break down resolute defences.
The Gunners lined up in a 4-3-1-2 against Brighton on Boxing Day and mustered only seven shots on goal, with the Torreira-Xhaka-Guendouzi midfield axis seeming like overkill given that Arsenal enjoyed 68.7% of possession.
So, then, Fantasy managers must be prepared for another possible system change against Cardiff next Tuesday.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Lacazette and Aubameyang won’t line up in the same starting XI, of course: a 3-4-1-2 would allow the two premium forwards to continue their partnership up top, while a 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3 may see Aubameyang move over to the left flank to accommodate Lacazette centrally.
After Saturday’s match, Emery discussed the future prospects of his two strikers playing together in attack:
It depends [on] each match. It wasn’t the same match as against West Ham and it won’t be next week against Manchester United either or against Cardiff. I’m working for the best balance with every player. Sometimes they can play together and other matches it is impossible because maybe there is another idea with a system and we only play with one attacking player.
We are very happy with them. I think also they can help us in defensive situations. Aubameyang can play also on the right or left. When he plays there the most important thing is his attitude and his mentality because when I asked him, he said ‘yes, I am going to do that’. But his best most preferred decision is like an attacking player.
Any Fantasy owners of Kolasinac that were worried about a potential drop-off in his attacking numbers would have been heartened to see some of his numbers.
Despite the Gunners seeing just over a third of possession, Kolasinac racked up 25 final third touches (the second-highest number of all Arsenal players), four penalty box touches, three successful crosses, two key passes and a shot on goal.
A 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 diamond doesn’t actually seem that bad a fit for the Bosnian or his FPL owners, given that Arsenal are still reliant on him providing natural width due to the narrow nature of their midfield.
A season-ending injury to Bellerin could be significant to how Emery lines his teams up in future, though: the Spanish full-back ruptured his ACL in that win over Chelsea and will be out for six to nine months.
Stephan Lichtsteiner (£4.5m) or Ainsley Maitland-Niles (£4.4m) could stand to benefit from Bellerin’s extended absence, though it’s fair to say neither is such a natural fit in the all-action right-back/wing-back role.
The Talking Point – Chip Strategy
Ben Crellin’s excellent two articles on this site last week first laid out the likelihood of when the FPL blanks and doubles may occur and what some of the different chip strategies might be as we approach Gameweek 27 and beyond.
The two Carabao Cup semi-finals tonight and tomorrow (one, of course, a dead rubber) and the FA Cup fourth-round fixtures this weekend will give us even more information on which teams will have fixtures in Gameweeks 27, 31 and 33.
There could even be an announcement thereafter regarding when our first double Gameweek may occur, with Manchester City and one of Spurs/Chelsea set to be without a Premier League fixture in Gameweek 27.
The picture may, therefore, be a lot clearer by the time next Tuesday’s Gameweek 24 deadline rolls around and we could perhaps start thinking about shrewdly using our allocated transfers to ensure we have a competitive starting XI in place ahead of the first blank of the season.
It ought to be said, though, that too much emphasis can be placed on concerning oneself with the other blanks and doubles on the horizon – especially in mid-January.
Speaking personally, this writer was guilty of focusing too much, too soon on the decimated Gameweeks last season and not enough on those teams with excellent fixtures around them.
If Spurs progress to the final of the EFL Cup, do we go without representation from Mauricio Pochettino’s side for their triple-header at Wembley before Gameweek 27? The Lilywhites’ current injury crisis might make that easier to answer but an earlier-than-anticipated return for, say, Son Heung-min (£8.6m) would be tough to ignore.
Similarly, for those asking which is the best chip strategy to use going forward: there isn’t one. At least, not until hindsight comes into play.
Quite simply, no-one knows right now. There are a number of attractive options likely to be used by a lot of FPL managers, including FH32, WC34 and BB35 (with TC used on another mini-double Gameweek), but we are yet to even ascertain the extent of the double Gameweeks so committing that far in advance seems like folly at this stage.
Gameweek 27 should be slightly more easy to navigate given that only four teams will blank and by that point, we will know the identity of the FA Cup quarter-finalists, too.
At that stage, it will be important to be thinking about a chip strategy.
There will be plenty of noise coming from social media and beyond but FPL managers needn’t be afraid to be different: last season, Yusuf Shiekh wildcarded in Gameweek 25, bench boosted in Gameweek 37 and used his triple captain chip in Gameweek 38, and ended up winning the whole thing.
With a “template” squad beginning to form after Harry Kane‘s (£12.5m) injury, a well-thought-out chip strategy can be as good as several differential assets in the season run-in.
A double Gameweek 25 (a slim possibility but a possibility nonetheless), of course, would really throw the cat among the pigeons…
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