As our fantasy world continues to grow we are increasingly blessed, and at times burdened, with a wealth of statistical data to inform our weekly decisions. The seed was planted with the infamous Goals Imminent Table and the Midfield Marauders, but now the undergrowth has germinated beyond all reasonable imagination. To my surprise, this weed has blossomed into a somewhat pretty flower, challenging my perhaps archaic belief in the ‘eye test’. A self-proclaimed ‘purist’ and lover of the gentleman’s game, I have persisted with trusting the ol’ mince pies over this new, impure form of information. One can’t quantify the heart and hunger of Luis Suarez, the gritty steel of Frank Lampard, the inexplicable bounce in Andy Carroll‘s step… or can they? Further still, could my eyes have spotted the regal figure of Lord John Lundstram gracing pre-season or the spindly, inescapable limbs of Aaron Wan Bissaka? Hmm…
With time, the answer to these questions became inescapable. The beautiful game is played on grass but our game is far from the comforting green turf which lines our sacred battlegrounds. The signs were there; the community intelligentsia chartered the importance of shots in the box, chances created and diagnosed the bonus point system. This I could handle, but the statisticians were far from done. Algebraic equations soon became frequent FPL verbiage, xGs and KPIs flanked a stream of tables and diagrams. My pupil’s shuttle runs tracking the tenacity of Harry Kane‘s gait rendered obsolete by the simplicity of a heat map. Alas, the battle was lost. To some success I gave in to the devil that is the details, clinging onto respectable cherished overall ranks. Suddenly, as I began to find my feet in this new world of numbers, something happened. The rising dawn of the statistical age grew hazy as anarchy descended. Brighter minds than mine began to question the data – do missed big chances mean a goal is imminent or does the attacker lack quality? What importance do we attribute to individual statistics where the team data lacks bite? And through the fog of these discussions, my eyes could see.
The stats don’t have all the answers. But if this is the case, what are we looking for? What can the stats not see? To help inform my eyes for the advent of this new season, I have put together three key features that I will be looking at in the hope of identifying ‘form’ before it happens. The overarching purpose of this process is to contextualise the wealth of statistical information and to stop my eyes from wandering into the unpredictable by planning what to look for. The natural variance of FPL means I won’t be able to see the goals before they happen and I want to ensure I’m not swept away by the sumptuous Adam Lallana cruyff turn or the number of big chances falling to Aleksandar Mitrovic‘s burly feet. These quantities will be brought out in data, but the context surrounding them, perhaps less so. It is worth noting that the majority of the below criteria are geared towards attacking players, as I feel their returns are more closely linked to their individual performances. Where defenders and goalkeepers can obtain clean sheet points from the work of their teammates, attacking players are largely rewarded for their individual contributions.
1. Energy Levels
With a shortened pre-season following the longest Premier League campaign in living memory, I’ll be looking to identify who looks fit and lively, hoping that this will lead to better positions in game and more minutes on the pitch. Sprints forward and tracking back in the final 20 minutes of games in particular will be monitored as an indicator of how the legs are holding up and who might be in the fray for some late-game fantasy points. I am less concerned with constant movement or ‘busyness’ (as players have vastly different roles) but will be noting a willingness to chase loose balls and make off the ball runs. Additionally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on who is subbed early, perhaps receiving managerial protection knowing they aren’t quite ready for a new season. I’ll also be watching keenly for gestures and demonstrative behaviour, encouraging (or enraged) shouts and applause as an indicator of interest and engagement in the game. Even the surliest of Manchester United strikers in Anthony Martial is noticeably more animated (even if this does mean increasingly irritable) when fit, healthy and chasing a goal.
Analogously to energy levels I’ll be hoping to spot sharpness and a crispness in players during the first few Gameweeks. Energy levels are one thing, but players are capable of trying and failing where they are simply off form. By contrast, there is a noticeable clinical touch to those in form. Sharp passes and ‘being ahead of the play’ (making intelligent unseen runs or creating chances that go awry through no fault of their own) will be taken as positive indicators in this regard (see Andy Robertson in the Community Shield). I’ll also be looking for quality at dead ball situations and well-struck shots on goals (as opposed to mishits or tame efforts that still count as shots on target statistically) as signs of form. As was the case with Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling at the start of the season just passed, the story told statistically (one player creating chances and one having the greater goal threat) painted an incomplete picture, as the quality of De Bruyne’s contribution was visibly better. Defensively, I’ll be looking at well-timed tackles, positioning and aerial duels as an indicator of timing in the centre back positions – whilst not the primary focus of my attention, the form of a world class centre back such as Virgil Van Dijk goes a long way to ensuring Liverpool are able to keep clean sheets, while the contrasting evidence of errors (such as Kepa Arrizabalaga or Adrian San Miguel last season) might be indicative of sketchy moments to come.
3. Team Functioning
While the first couple of criteria have been geared towards individual characteristics, the final one relates to team dynamics. Perhaps the hardest of the three to define, in this criteria I’ll be looking to identify teams that have a cohesive visible system. While ‘styles of play’ may vary, there is noticeable chemistry about a team that is well-drilled and know their roles. From top to bottom last season there was evidence of cohesive team form, be it Liverpool at Christmas, Burnley mid-season, Southampton late-season or Manchester United following the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. These ‘positive vibes’ for lack of a better phrase were tangible, yet likely illusive in statistical metrics. As indicators for this, I’ll be looking to note down instances of positive chemistry rather than misunderstandings – worked interplay and accurate passes, for example, or general togetherness whether smiling in attack or gritting teeth in defence. Body language plays a key role here, with a stubborn defence identifiable for the aggresive pats on the back for saves, blocks and clearances and flowing attacks marked by positive (often unselfish) interactions. I’ll also be noting down the success rate of set pieces at both ends of the floor, paying particular attention to the levels of organisation and understanding of roles in defence and the creativity and rehearsed nature of the movements in attack. With a sea of new signings, it can be difficult for teams to gel both in open play and at set pieces, i’ll be keeping my eye on teams with numerous new signings such as Chelsea in this regard, in an attempt to identify how ‘settled’ their team is. Finally I’ll be monitoring team tendencies, as markers of where points may lie in the near future. Whether fullbacks are encouraged to get forward, forwards encouraged to cut in, midfielders to drift wide are individual examples (likely captured in heat maps) but as a team the willingness to break forward from opposition set pieces or load the box at corners and free kicks might be a good indicator of where points could lie in the future that won’t show up in statistics.
I don’t expect to be able to beat the stats machine but maybe just maybe, if I keep it simple, I’ll spot something that others don’t. At the end of it all I would like to think I have my sights set in the right direction, but maybe my eyes just need testing.