In his latest Pro Pundits column, former Fantasy Premier League champion Simon March talks us through how effective differentials can be for the season run-in.
If you spend any time on Fantasy Football sites and forums which, if you’re reading this, you do, you’ll have noticed people talking a lot about ‘differentials’.
A ‘differential’, is a low-owned player, be that in overall FPL terms or in the context of a mini-league. There is no universal definition of what constitutes a differential in overall FPL, but it usually applies to players with sub-20% ownership with a ‘true differential’ being a player with sub-5%. Within discussions of differentials, a player becomes ‘more of a differential’ the lower his overall ownership.
What I’ll call; ‘differential theory’ refers to the idea that, if a low-owned player scores well they will, by virtue of their low-ownership, have a positive effect on the ranks of those managers that do own them.
The inverse of this philosophy is the apocryphal ‘Template’ which argues that, if your team resembles too many other teams, you won’t be able to advance up the ranks, strengthening the case for differentials.
Discussions of differentials intensify toward the end of the season when people are making last-gasp attempts to move up the overall ranks or win their mini-leagues. But does differential theory actually work in practice?
Do Differentials Work?
Differential theory can work. Logically, if you own an otherwise low-owned player who has scored well, the likelihood that this will, when looked at in isolation, translate into a net benefit for you rank-wise should be quite high. Everyone has, at some point, benefitted from a differential and FPL is littered with examples of them paying off, so it’s something we tend to believe quite strongly in.
However, owning even a high-scoring differential won’t pay off on its own. For this to happen, the higher-owned alternatives also have to score fewer points. In other words; if a 5% owned player and a 50% owned player both score 10 points, their ownership percentages become less relevant. The differential has to outscore the more popular alternatives to have a net-positive effect.
As bookies and weathermen will be all too familiar with, when formulating the probability of an outcome, the more variables that you have to insert into the formula, the lower the probability of that outcome occurring typically becomes.
The likelihood of your differential delivering a net positive score is, therefore; the probability of your differential scoring offset against the probability of a higher-owned player also scoring. Given that highly-owned players often score well (which is often why they’re highly-owned) and low-owned players often don’t (which is often why they’re low-owned), this is not a formula you would expect to pay off regularly and, maybe, not even very often.
You often see mention of “high risk, high reward” options on FPL forums but you will sometimes get the impression that, actually, they’re looking at ‘risk’ and ‘reward’ as if more risk equals more reward. Of course more risk may result in more reward on occasion, but your expected payoff will always be reward divided by risk so, on average, more risk will equal less reward.
Of course, differentials may be differentials because they’ve just come into the team or come back from injury. In such cases, their prospects might be much better, though these types of players naturally carry their own inherent risks.
Does ‘The Template’ Exist?
So how do you move up the ranks then? Surely you can’t do it just by owning the well-owned players? Well, yes and no. If you take a look at my current team below, there aren’t many players who you would call a ‘true’ differential. In fact, only Mason Holgate (£4.3m) and Todd Cantwell (£4.6m) are under 15% ownership (13% each). In other words, it’s fairly ‘template’.
It might surprise people to learn therefore that not a single other manager in the top 10k has the same combination of players. Even if you remove my three lowest-owned players from the equation (the above plus Ings at 21%) only 0.11% or 11 people have the same team as me in the Top 10k.
While this isn’t conclusive proof that the ‘template’ is, in fact, a myth, it definitely suggests that we exaggerate its significance. This, of course, is less likely to apply to mini leagues with relatively few entrants, but I’m afraid that scenario is for another article.
Impact on FPL Strategy
What does this all mean for FPL strategy? Well, to me it suggests that focusing on differentials and ownership percentages won’t be as beneficial to your success as focusing on which players will score the most is likely to be. So, yet again, however complicated we make FPL, it ultimately still comes down to picking the players who will score the most points. There is a potential benefit to a good differential, but it’s important to ask yourself; are they ‘good’, and not just ‘different’. Will they really outscore the more popular alternatives?
In conclusion, while I wouldn’t rule out the benefit of a good punty differential, and there is definitely a time and a place for them (e.g. when you’re desperate or when you’re a bit drunk), placing yourself at the mercy of them too frequently will almost certainly not pay off over time.
The better option, I believe, is not to focus on ownership percentages at all but, instead, focus only on expected points. Over the course of a season, consistency, I believe, will always be the best differential.
FPL Lessons Learned from Gameweek 32+
- Aston Villa 0-1 Wolves
- Watford 1-3 Southampton
- Crystal Palace 0-1 Burnley
- Brighton 0-3 Manchester United
- Arsenal 4-0 Norwich City
- Bournemouth 1-4 Newcastle United
- Everton 2-1 Leicester City
- West Ham United 3-2 Chelsea
- Sheffield United 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur
- Manchester City 4-0 Liverpool
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