In his latest Pro Pundits column, former Fantasy Premier League champion Simon March highlights the motivating factors that might be driving our Fantasy assets in the season run-in.
We’re approaching that point in the season where we begin to consider which Premier League players are still motivated to perform and who is effectively ‘on the beach’. Conventional wisdom suggests that players in teams with ‘something to play for’ will be more motivated during the run-in and, we assume, motivated players will perform better, offering greater opportunity for Fantasy Premier League points.
It’s true that scientists have long discovered a positive relationship between proper motivation and improved performance across many settings ranging from sports, workplaces, health and so on. Working out what is ‘proper motivation’, and how it might affect players for the purposes of FPL is, however, a bit more complicated and, so, this article will look at the nature of motivation itself, and how this might help us identify effective FPL assets for the final Gameweeks of 2019/20.
Why is motivation so important at the end of the season? It has to do with a phenomenon known as the (snappily-titled) ‘Goal Gradient Hypothesis’ which essentially states that a goal or incentive becomes more motivating the closer we get to it. Hence why, for example, the final 100 metres of a marathon is often considered the easiest or it’s typically easier to stick to a diet the closer you get to that beach holiday. The reverse is also true, of course; the further you are from the goal, the less motivational power that it offers.
For this discussion, we’re going to focus on two categories of motivational goals; team goals and player goals.
Team incentives may include battling for titles, avoiding relegation or securing European places but how teams respond to these incentives may vary considerably.
It’s probably not too early to state that there is only really one team left chasing the Premier League title this season and that is, of course, Liverpool. Surely there is no greater incentive out there other than to win the Premier League and, with that in mind, we can expect Liverpool to keep pushing themselves, at least until the title is mathematically secure.
We’ve seen in the past, however, that, as teams get closer to the title, they often begin to perform much more conservatively, focusing on securing wins above all else.
In Manchester City’s final ten games of last season, for example, they delivered four 1-0 and three 2-0 scorelines. This was in sharp contrast to the rest of the season where City were regularly seen to score three or more goals per game. We’ve seen similar patterns with other title-winning teams over the years.
Why might this shift occur? Well, it could relate to how we approach risk depending on our circumstances. When we are ahead, we tend to be risk-averse as we fear losing what we have. When we are behind, we are risk-inviting, we think ‘what the heck…’ and take wild punts as we have nothing to lose by doing so. As Fantasy managers, we can probably relate to this state of mind quite easily.
So the first thing to consider when it comes to motivation is how it may manifest itself. Liverpool are probably more motivated than any team in the league this season but, until they secure the league, they are likely to be more motivated not to lose the league than to win it in style. This means there’s a good chance that, while Liverpool are unlikely to stop scoring goals, it could be their defensive rather than attacking assets who offer the best value for the run-in.
At the other end of the table, we have the teams in the relegation dogfight which, at present, looks to include Norwich City, Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Watford, West Ham United, Brighton & Hove Albion and potentially a couple more.
While every team will play to their relative strengths, relegation battlers often embody the ‘what the heck’ ethos. They have nothing to lose so they may as well attack, in particular those at the very bottom of the league.
There’s every chance, therefore, that once-popular attacking assets such as Norwich’s Teemu Pukki (£6.5m), Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish (£6.6m) and (dare I say it) Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson (£7.4m) might offer themselves as a renaissance of attacking options. Of course, just because somebody is motivated to score doesn’t mean that they’re capable of doing so, but we can say that their odds are likely to improve at least.
Teams chasing European positions which, right now, might realistically apply to any team in the top half of the table, are likely to offer a combination of the above. As the season progresses, those already in European positions are likely to play more conservatively whereas those chasing them become ever more likely to ‘go for it’.
That said, it’s particularly important when considering the top teams to consider competing motivations. Unless there’s an unlikely capitulation on behalf of Liverpool, it’s fair to assume that, at some point, Manchester City will begin to prioritise the UEFA Champions League (assuming they progress). The same could be true of Liverpool once they’ve wrapped the title up and, should they fall away in the top four race, Manchester United may well start to prioritise the UEFA Europa League as their best route back into the Champions League.
So, when assessing motivation at a team level, it’s important to remember that incentives can be hierarchical in nature. These competing motivations may well, if they take precedence, negatively impact performances in the league.
Teams on the Beach
The teams who occupy the mid-league positions come the season run-in, who are unlikely to be relegated or to realistically secure a European place, are often said to be ‘on the beach’; their performances imply that they are, mentally at least, already on holiday.
This makes sense; there’s nothing motivating about having nothing to play for and, in theory at least, it also makes sense to avoid these teams and their players. In practice, however, there are almost always one or two standout performers among these teams in the final Gameweeks.
Why might this be? Well, in part because, sometimes, relieving pressure is as effective as goal-based motivation, in the short term at least. Players play with a freedom that they don’t normally have, they are ‘intrinsically motivated’, playing for the pure joy of playing and this is reflected in their performances. Or, alternatively, they have a personal goal, which is what will be discussed next.
Alongside team goals, individual players often have their own reasons to feel motivated during the season run-in. They might, for example, be chasing the Golden Boot and we’ve seen in the past the likes of Spurs’ Harry Kane going ‘Super Sayan’ in the final few Gameweeks in order to secure this.
If they’re not already in your thinking, Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (£11.0m), Leicester’s Jamie Vardy (£9.8m), Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero (£11.9m), Southampton’s Danny Ings (£7.2) and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (£12.8m), all of whom are in the running for this year’s Golden Boot, will have even more reason than normal to want to score heavily in the final few Gameweeks.
Teammates sometimes even facilitate this goal pursuit, temporarily offering penalty duties to such players, so stocking your FPL teams with Golden Boot chasers, and captaining them, can pay off enormously.
Another individual reason for a player to up their game in the final matches of the season, and one that is particularly significant this year, is to win an international call-up. With Euro 2020 on the horizon, players on the periphery of their international squad may well put in an extra effort to impress their international manager.
Taking England as an example, this could well apply to the likes of Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin (£6.4m), Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish (again), Leicester’s James Maddison (£7.5m) and almost every English Chelsea player, among many others. Again, backing these types of players could well pay off as we get to the business end of the season.
Finally, there are those players who might be looking for a move or to sign a new contract. Wilfried Zaha (£6.8m) has long been rumoured to want out of Crystal Palace but, as yet, nobody has appeared willing to meet their transfer valuation. Chelsea’s Willian (£7.0m) is out of contract in the summer but is, supposedly, keen to stay in west London and, yet again, Jack Grealish, while unlikely to demand a move away from his beloved Aston Villa, is surely too good for the Championship should Villa get relegated. Again, these players are ones to keep an eye on.
The right motivation can have a profound and transformative impact on a player’s performance and, because the power of motivation typically increases the closer a person gets to their goal, this is the part of the season where this will really come into play and where factoring motivation into your FPL decisions can offer big advantages.
Identifying a player’s motivations and how these might influence their performances in FPL terms can be quite tricky as they often compete and do not always follow a logical path, but the key principle is to look for teams, and players, who have something to play for, be it collectively, individually or, ideally, both.
Often, the sorts of players who explode in this part of the season will be the ones who have flown under the radar to date or gone out of fashion and, thus, offer huge differential potential if they can be identified. There’s certainly a skill to doing that but, as legendary investor Charlie Munger once said, “If you want to predict how somebody will behave, first look at their incentives” – and that’s certainly a good a place to start.
Simon March is a member of our Pro Pundits initiative, a team of Fantasy managers here to bring you regular advice and updates on their teams. Simon won the FPL title in 2014/15 and has become a fixture on the punditry circuit ever since.
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