Its July 2007, I find myself (like any other July) sitting in a pub, drinking cider, flicking through the sports pages, reading nonsensical articles about how the biggest names in football are linked to one of the clubs in the top flight of English football.
Football would never be the same for me this summer. Not only was the title “Premiership” replaced with “Premier” for the best football league in the world, but I stumbled across Fantasy Premier League. Immediately I have memories of being 12, going through the back of a newspaper while waiting for a piano lesson I had no signs of showing improvement in. What I really wanted was to be the next Glenn Hoddle (im a Chelsea fan), that was my dream and Fantasy Football would be my Everest, my Definitely Maybe, my greatest achievement in life!
Before the internet, Fantasy Football was a very different animal. You had to request a transfer via post or phone a national newspaper, and declare your team with pride, to someone who wouldn’t even have the inclination or interest to question why I had chosen Shaka Hislop over Peter Schmeichel. Requesting a transfer was the same routine and it is little wonder why for many interest over the season diminished quickly.
Fast forward back to 2007. The birth of the internet, smartphones and social media may have been detrimental to certain aspects of society, but for Fantasy Football they had breathed new life into the game. Little was I to know that over the next thirteen years technology would be the catalyst to an industry that has now been officially endorsed, gone global and created internet fantasy football gurus to the status of Kim Kardashian or at the very least Jake Paul (I had to google him).
The previous 13 pre-seasons have taught and reaffirmed many lessons, if not mostly humility. I would like to think that any FPL “Expert” podcaster, analyst or member of the FPL Community would agree that they do not know how formulate the perfect Gameweek 1 team.
My approach to putting together a Fantasy Football team for Gameweek 1 has always been flexible and reactive. Depending on the status of Premier League squads, in regards to how settled they are and how they performed the previous season, I have either selected two or three players and none if a club is in a period of transition or had an erratic previous season. This may seem like common sense, but there are FPL managers who have a system and stick to it, “Pulis Players” if you like. I would recommend a more flexible “Sven System” of looking at what you have got and how best to get through the first four Gameweeks at the very least (although playing David Beckham in a Quarterback role was a step too far for me).
Because of the extremely short turnaround between seasons, I feel this pre-season will be easier to decipher than previous years, as I believe the end of season form for the majority of teams will continue into the start of the season.
With the exception of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea who will be or have already opened their war chest, enabling them to ride out the economic uncertainty of the pandemic. The vast majority of squads do not look like they will change to any significant degree.
Although this seasons fixture list is yet to be published, an appealing run of fixtures is always going to attract the attention of FPL managers. As proven from previous seasons an early run of favourable fixtures can be misleading, especially during the opening fixtures when clubs are getting settled into the season. However as I believe team form will continue into the new season, the ability to decipher a genuine block of decent fixtures should return in consistent points over these periods.
When a teams predicted run of favourable fixtures aren’t as fruitful as anticipated, not only is the return of points disappointing but the potential damage to Team Value can cause problems for future transfers. A perfect example of was Everton last season, when the majority of the FPL Community on social media was singing lyrically about their favourable early fixtures. This resulted in many FPL managers selecting two or three of the Toffee’s players, with a very mixed outcome. The result of which made for a lot of difficult decisions for these managers as Everton’s inconsistency meant they drew with Crystal Palace and Sheffield United, produced wins against Watford and Wolves but lost to Aston Villa and Bournemouth. Issues such as whether to stick or twist with their Everton selections as other FPL managers began to panic and remove them from their squads, resulted in the individual player values and FPL team values dropping. This scenario creates a snowball effect as FPL manager’s fear they may not react quickly enough and lose more value in their squad.
At such an early stage a 0.1 drop in team value is more like a 0.5 drop, as FPL managers would only be able to transfer in players that are 0.5 less than the player they’ve lost value in. This loss would only ever be recovered if the manager sold a player that rose to the same value. This introduces the subject of Team Values and their importance, which can be covered later. It was also using valuable Free Transfers, which otherwise could have been used for other problem areas of their squads. This in turn brought the conundrum of whether to take hits early on in the season. This is a prime example of how heavily backing a single team can have a knock on effect of problems, if it all goes wrong.
Last season the popularity for Everton at the beginning of the season highlighted the potential danger of bandwagons. When deciding whether or not to follow a bandwagon (which can feel like the opinion of everybody), it is important to consider how a bandwagon is formed and why it is not always as popular as it can seem.
It is human nature for people to surround themselves with others of a similar personality, taste or opinion. This is how political parties and movements are formed. Social media has allowed people of a similar ilk to communicate and support each other’s ideas and opinions. In the FPL Community there is no better confidence builder for your posted draft on Twitter, when a similar opinion on a particular tactic or strategy is found. These FPL managers can support each other as they go forward with their squads and theories, to ease their concerns regarding their own squads and reassuring the rest of the herd. Suddenly the theory spreads, people feel they could miss out on points that the FPL Community massive will receive and don’t want to be left behind. Suddenly an Indiana Jones Temple Of Doom boulder is rolling through Twitter, collecting FPL managers as it crashes through.
In previous seasons there has been a growing discontent from the FPL Community that the so called “Casuals” were doing well, that it was a “Casual Season” as the “obvious players” were scoring well and consistently. As a result some bandwagons were struggling to justify themselves, as often bandwagons are based on a theory slightly left of centre, giving the impression that the FPL Community know something that the remaining mangers do not. I stayed away from the Twitter consensus of backing Everton last season. It paid off, but it could have easily been a disaster if the Toffees had hit the ground running.
Last year, the current trend going through the FPL Community was to “go big at the back”. The theory that safer, more consistent points can be collected through defenders from Liverpool and Manchester City and to a lesser degree Everton and perhaps Chelsea.
The previous season’s statistics defend this theory, encouraging FPL managers to select two or even three defenders from Liverpool or Manchester City, at the expense of typically higher priced midfielders and forwards. It is a theory all FPL Podcasters are discussing and in favour of and is turning into this season’s Bandwagon that shows no sign of stopping.
This theory required serious faith as premium defenders struggled to keep clean sheets in the early Gameweeks, which was expected as a bare minimum, considering their fixtures. With premium priced defenders points for assists, goals and BPS are required to justify their price tag. It was not until mid-December that Liverpool start to consistently keep teams from scoring, long after many FPL mangers had disregarded the “go big at the back” theory as a costly misguided faith to follow.
This pre-season talk within the FPL Community of adopting 5 premium midfielders is gaining traction. Spending the majority of your budget in the middle of the park, would result in only one (if any) premium forwards being included within the squad. Following a season where midfielders such as Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Raheem Sterling and Anthony Martial have all scored 200 or more points it is easy to see the appeal. When you consider the likely introduction of Jadon Sancho to Manchester United, Christian Pulisic showing great promise at Chelsea and a potential bargain in Phil Foden, the argument becomes very persuasive.
If this approach becomes the first bandwagon of the season, it will be interesting to see how loyal FPL managers are to the theory if a number of premium forwards begin to consistently haul.
In correlation with the latest formation bandwagon, there is also a growing belief within the FPL Community that placing the armband on a forward is an inefficient use of its benefits. The topical subject concludes that midfielders are now the best option to be your FPL captain.
Previously the FPL Community has claimed that placing the captain’s armband on a defender is a waste, as there is less of a chance of a defender accumulating a big score, as often the most you can hope for is a clean sheet and perhaps an assist also. In comparison with attacking midfielders or forwards who have the potential to score a brace of goals, assists or both. It would seem more likely to receive a double figure haul from an offensive player rather than a defensive player. By limiting the number of high valued attacking players in your squad, you reduce the realistic captaincy options at your disposal, of forward players. This may not be an issue for some managers who intend to stick and leave the armband on the likes of Salah or Sterling, however the option of at least a few players who have the potential of double figure hauls is never a bad situation to be in.
Are the bandwagons justified? Well that is the opinion of the individual. The FPL Community is wide and varied but depending on what media an FPL manager uses, the intensity of a particular bandwagon they are subjected to can differ. The tidal wave created by bandwagons however, does affect all FPL managers and highlights the issue of player ownership.
I would always tell FPL managers that after all the discussion and analysis, they need to pick their squad on their terms. There is nothing worse in FPL than when you select a player because you have allowed yourself to be talked or pressured into it and it turned out to be a mistake. There is however a caveat especially in the first few game weeks of FPL regarding ownership.
The level of ownership a player possesses is an important issue, especially for the beginning of the season. If you do not own a player with approximately 30% or higher ownership, who scores well in the opening fixtures, then you will find yourself at a massive disadvantage. If on the other hand, said player struggles and you are one of the masses who placed him in your side, then you have had to injure the pain collectively and your overall ranking may not suffer too harshly.
I’m not condoning selecting players all season purely based on their ownership, but I believe it is an important criteria to give yourself the opportunity to stay in touch with the higher ranks, at the very early stages of the season. It is conservative and risk adverse and may not be as profitable as taking a punt on Arsenal, or Chelsea who may come out all guns blazing. Fortune often does favour the brave and Twitter is more than happy to show you posts of triple figure game week scores. You rarely hear the other side of the coin however and I would rather still be in the fight, rather than knocked out in round one. Of course it is not possible to win or lose FPL after Gameweek 1 but a sound start lays a great foundation.
My most painful lesson that I learned last season in relation to ownership, was that of stubbornness. When Southampton’s fixtures turned favourably in Gameweek 14, the FPL community started to mutter the name Danny Ings. I had no confidence in his ability and expected his injury record to get even longer. I didn’t think his body would be able to play throughout the busy Christmas period and even if he did not pick up an injury, he would be rested for the odd game. Despite his consistent returns I felt I had missed the boat and refused to bring him into my squad until it was too late. My overall rank suffered badly over this period. If I had brought Ings into my squad to cover the rapid rise of his ownership, I would have protected my overall ranking to a certain extent.
This happens every season to many FPL managers, whether it be a surprise package of Teemu Pukki of Norwich or a stats defying Jamie Vardy. If a playing iw showing consistency and a sharply rising ownership, even if you missed the first few decent tunes don’t miss out on whole party.
As well as the most popular players, it is important to take into account the other extreme. As budgets become tight, the vast majority of FPL managers would usually be looking for bench fodder and the odd enabler. Although I hope to have a full squad of regular starters, this has usually not always been the case, with the game time for many £4.0m and £4.5m enablers and bench fodder being severely limited. As some managers panic that these players are not performing, the ownership of these players will fall and as a result the value has a risk of dropping. To mitigate this I often select bench fodder with the lowest ownership. This tactic is purely based on an attempt to protect my squad value at an early stage of the FPL season.
Tools Of The Trade
There is now an abundant supply of information and tools at the fingertips of FPL managers, depending on which websites they read and memberships they subscribe to. There are endless spreadsheets and algorithms on the internet, designed to help FPL mangers select their perfect squad. Fantasy Football is still certainly a game of opinions. If we all followed mathematical equations and probability formulas, we would all have the same team. I have studied these tables in previous seasons but not followed their output religiously for one simple reason. Statistics tell you what has definitely happened, not what will definitely happen.
We have 22 humans running around a football pitch, no Excel spreadsheet in the world could predict what will happen. The most useful spreadsheet I find is a simple fixture tracker, which just allows you to look in advance and prepare potential transfers for clubs who have a decent or terrible run of fixtures. There is a danger of trying to be too clever and looking too far ahead. I have found in the past when struggling and playing catch up, simply looking a single game week at a time can prove profitable. I wouldn’t recommend it for a long period of time as you could easily find your squad staring at an unpleasant set of fixtures, with your bench providing little assistance.
I get no greater satisfaction in the world of FPL by going old school and selecting a player that caught my eye during a live match. A player who may not have ticked the necessary boxes for an algorithm to select him as a potential addition but looks like he has the potential to haul FPL points. In comparison however, I find one of the most interesting and valuable pieces of statistical information are heat maps. The location of where players spend the majority of their time on a pitch, where they shoot from, make key passes and analyzing how that changes over time is invaluable when comparing players.
I think it is important to take as much information on board as possible, without over indulging yourself and leaving you in knots. Take a bit of everything: a spreadsheet, a tracker and your experience. If you find yourself struggling to make a call between two players, I recommend go by the statistical information.
I know it has been said before, but at the end of the day pick the team you are genuinely comfortable with. Play the game to your style, throw caution to the wind and hope you leave everybody trailing in your wake. Play the steady Eddie approach and go for the long game, hoping you are still in the hunt come March, it is up to you. This game is very much a battle with yourself than other people.
I am certainly no expert at this game as the previous 13 years will testify. The game has got tougher as more people have started participating and it can certainly take over your life. The amount of information that is potentially at the fingertips of FPL managers has certainly exploded in recent years and the quality of the average FPL manger has improved.
With the issue of mental health rightly being discussed more in society (especially men’s), it is important to try and keep FPL in perspective. Have a passion for FPL, try and crack its enigma machine as so many people consistently come so close to doing. Most of all enjoy yourself and have fun. It has brought a lot of people together with a harmless common interest. Whether or not you have a great season or a terrible one, to a certain degree your fantasy football team is in the hands of the FPL gods.