Fantasy Premier League managers could be forgiven for thinking that now is the time to perform extensive surgery on our squads ahead of Gameweek 9.
A big reason for that is recent re-examining of the premium assets we need to own, influenced, of course by the well-documented fixture-swing on the other side of the international break.
We have been talking about how to balance these expensive individuals all season, the strategy of rotating through them quickly a big talking point going all the way back to pre-season.
Bruno Fernandez celebrates scoring against Everton in Gameweek 8
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (£11.7m), Mohamad Salah (£12.4m), Harry Kane (£11.0m) Kevin De Bruyne (£11.5m) and Bruno Fernandes (£10.5m) were among those options who managers were considering owning at some point in the campaign.
Starting the season with so many premium options meant that we looked to the likes of Tyrick Mitchell (£4.2m), Nathan Ferguson (£4.0m) Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa (£4.5m) Yves Bissouma (£4.5m) and Tomas Souček (£4.9m) to enable budget restrictions.
This strategy often works well at the start of the season. Mostly because we are learning about the teams, who is getting starts, which teams start the season with a bang and which struggle to get going.
The lack of data at the beginning of a campaign means that owning as many tried and tested premiums as possible is often a good decision as it should ensure some points returns while we gather as much data as possible about the rest of the league.
Blank Gameweek 1 also threw FPL managers a curve ball and made safe premium picks an even more attractive option. However, within a few rounds it became clear that some of those budget picks were the right ones to be on, while others caused FPL Managers headaches.
Tyrick Mitchell in action for Crystal Palace against Southampton’s Kyle Walker Peters
Mitchell started the season with back to back points returns for a clean sheet in Gameweek 1 and an assist in Gameweek 2, however since then he has blanked regularly, got injured and lost his place in the team.
His team-mate Ferguson was highly discussed in the FPL community as being a great way in to the Crystal Palace defence when he recovered from his injury. However, this injury has continued to keep the former West Bromwich Albion out and he is yet to make his first appearance for Palace.
At the same time Max Kilman (£4.3m) is now on the radar with three returns in his five starts for Wolves this season. Indeed, he was unlucky not to keep a clean sheet in Gameweek 8 following a debated penalty for Jamie Vardy (£10.1m) as well as having a good goal-scoring of his own.
Max Kilman celebrates with his Wolves team mates following Rayan Ait-Nouri’s first goal for the club
After eight Gameweeks we now have a clearer understanding of who the cheap enablers are, which premiums are worth investing in and what the best way to distribute the budget across our FPL teams is.
The early part of this season saw very few clean sheets. Although this was roughly aligned with the number of shut-outs we see at the start of every season, the number of goals was disproportionately higher than normal.
We saw some ridiculous score lines, Aston Villa and Liverpool played out a 7-2, Southampton and Spurs as well as Leicester, Everton and West Brom and Man City managed 5-2 results, while Liverpool and Leeds kicked off the new season with a 4-3 thriller.
These score-lines meant that many FPL managers like myself saw very little value in investing in premium defenders. However, the level of goals scored each week is decreasing and the number of clean sheets is rising so is it time to rethink how our FPL teams are structured?
Cheap at the back
Coufal successfully blocks a shot from Sergio Aguero
When the season started many FPL managers looked to find most of their value players in defence. Trent Alexander-Arnold (£7.4m) started the campaign as the most-owned defender in the game, largely paired with £4.5m and £4.0m options in our teams.
With 99 goals scored between Gameweeks 1 and 3, combined with only 13 clean sheets in the same period this strategy worked well. The number of goals and the lack of clean sheets meant that using the money to fill the forward spots with better assets seemed a wise strategy.
The cheap defence plus Alexander-Arnold strategy worried me at the start of the season. In all of my other FPL seasons there has been real value in spending on the defence.
All three of the Liverpool’s key Fantasy defenders, alongside the likes of Lucas Digne (£6.1m), Aymeric Laporte (£6.0m), Ben Chilwell (£5.9m) and Marcos Alonso (£5.7m) have, in seasons gone by, proved to be amazing FPL assets who were well worth the investment.
This change in strategy made me uneasy. I always worry about making my team as flexible as possible so that it is easy to move from one player to another as the season progresses and the right assets to won becomes clear.
My concern with starting the year with a mix of £4.5m and £4.0m defenders is that there is very little can go from there without using two transfers and therefore potentially taking a points hit.
Eric Dier and Harry Kane celebrate the laters goal vs PFC Ludogorets Razgrad in the Europa League for Spurs
As a result, I decided to have Alexander-Arnold, Eric Dier (£4.9m) and then two 4.5m and a 4.0m. Doing this made me feel a little more confident that should there be a defender that I really wanted to move too it would be an easier process to get there.
As the last eight Gameweeks have shown defenders are now starting to be back up to the pace of the game. There have been 17 clean sheets in the last three Gameweeks, in comparison to the 13 for the first three as well as just 68 goals, a massive drop.
This movement towards more clean sheets potential makes this cheap at the back strategy a little outdated. Especially when you couple this with the fact that we now only have one player, Kilman, who started the season at 4.0m who is now regularly starting for his side.
Kurt Zouma celebrates scoring for Chelsea vs Burnley
For me the cheap at the back strategy has had its day. There are so many defenders who at over £5.0m who are keeping clean sheets and registering goals, assists and bonus points that it is worth finding budget to improve some of those 4.5m defenders for the likes of Aaron Cresswell (£5.1m), Ben Chilwell (£5.9m), Kurt Zouma (£5.3m), Hector Bellerín (£5.2m) and Kieran Tierney (£5.4m) all look worthy of FPL investment.
More pressingly, as their returns grow so will their price tags so its worth investing now before they are worth more and thus divert more money away from your premium midfield or forward positions.
The cheap at the back days were fun while they lasted but nows the time to invest more of that FPL budget to enable managers to reap the benefits.
However is it necessary to go all in at the back and invest in multiple premium defenders?
Big at the back
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson celebrate a Liverpool goal
FPL managers have seen success with the double-up on Liverpool defenders. This season, with just one clean sheet, a long-term injury for Virgil van Dijk (£6.3m), and only one assist for Alexander-Arnold and two assists and one goal for Robertson they haven’t been the prolific FPL points returners that we have come to love.
But is there still scope for picking three or four over £5.5m premium defenders? At the start of the season definitely not but in Gameweeks 7 and 8 alone we had Rayan Ait Nouri (£5.0m), Kyle Walker (£6.1m), Zouma, Bellerín, Sergio Regulion (£5.6m), Tariq Lamptey (£4.7m), Stuart Dallas (£4.5m), Patrick Van-Aanolt (£5.4m), Chilwell, and Matt Doherty (£5.8m) all registering an attacking return.
While Lamptey and Dallas fall comfortably in to the cheap bracket, the rest of the defenders registering attacking returns in the last few weeks have been from the premium price tag.
Matt Doherty in action for Spurs vs Everton
Of these options, Doherty, Walker and Aït-Nouri also managed a clean sheet in the same Gameweek as their attacking return resulting in 12, 15 and 15 point hauls respectively. Investing in these defenders who have attacking pedigree at a time when we are starting to see an increase in clean sheets and fewer goals on average in each Gameweek is a wise move.
However there is a balancing act at play here. Owning Alexander-Arnold, Doherty, Walker and Aït-Nouri will cost you £24.3m nearly a quarter of your budget. Even if you add Kilman as a cheap fifth defender option at 4.3 you have still spent £28.6m on your defenders and thus owning multiple in form players such as Salah, Kane, Dominic Calvert-Lewin (£7.8m), Fernandes and Vardy becomes virtually impossible.
Defenders can return huge hauls as we have seen from some of them in the last few weeks, but there is also the chance that they concede goals right at the end of matches or give up a contentious penalty and return nothing as we have seen recently with the Crystal Palace, Wolves and Manchester United.
Harry Maguire reacts to Arsenal’s penalty against Manchester United in Gameweek 7
But even their own colleagues can damage their points potential. We saw this in Gameweek 8 where Dier was on track for two bonus points until the Kane goal went in when he slipped out of the top-three for BPS altogether.
It takes a brave FPL manager, especially this season, to invest big at the back. While it can be great, for me there needs to be a balance to ensure that you don’t miss out on the key attacking options due to a huge budget investment at the back.
For me, now is the time to have a core spine throughout the team to ensure the premium assets you want in every part of the pitch.
Core Spine from front to back
Harry Kane, Gareth Bale and Matt Doherty celebrate Spurs win vs Brighton
Every season, FPL managers end up with a core spine of talent in their teams where the budget is spread to form a strong unit that can be played week-in week-out. This core is then supported by enablers.
In a normal campaign this core would, in all likelihood, have been a strategy that more FPL managers have already deployed. However, the Blank Gameweek 1, the often bizarre results we have seen, as well as the aforementioned number of goals and lack of clean sheets means that it has taken longer than normal for me to move to this strategy.
With two free transfers going into Gameweek 8, I decide to drop down to one playing goalkeeper in Alex McCarthy (£4.5m) rather than maintaining my preferred rotating options.
Aaron Cresswell in action for West Ham
Losing my second playing keeper freed me up an additional £4.8m which I could use to upgrade the now injured Mitchell, who was my cheapest defensive option.
Replacing Mitchell with Cresswell ahead of West Ham’s fixture-turn, was the beginning of me investing a little more in the spine of my team.
With Cresswell alongside Alexander-Arnold, as well as three premium midfielders (Son, Sarah and Fernandes) and two more expensive strikers (Kane and Calvert-Lewin), Gameweek 8 was my highest points return of the season so far. Every single member of my squad, apart from Alexander-Arnold returned more than just the two points for playing the match.
Gameweek 9 points curtesy of LiveFPL.net
Ahead of Gameweek 9 finding a way to invest in more over £5.0m assets in my defence feels like a good idea.
Ideally, I would like to upgrade Dallas to one of the Chelsea or Man City defenders, this of course would mean moving some of the budget around.
I will potentially downgrade on Son Heung-min (9.6m) to Hakim Ziyech (8.1m) as the Spurs fixture shift happens, which could be a good option to fund my Chelsea defender upgrade.
Trent Alexander-Arnold before going off with an injury against Manchester City in Gameweek 8
However, with the only blot of Gameweek 8 being Alexander-Arnold going off with what looked like a calf injury just after the 60 minute mark, there is the option of downgrading him to reinvest the money across the defence.
As a result, I will be watching the price falls carefully and keeping a close ear to the ground for news out of Liverpool on the seriousness of the injury.
If Alexander-Arnold is out, the the move to Chilwell looks the most obvious and then I will reinvest the money upgrading Dallas to one of the Man City defenders, Joao Cancelo (£5.4m) or Walker looking like the best options after their Gameweek 9 fixture against Spurs.
While cheap defenders helped us fill our FPL teams with premium midfielders and forwards at the start of the season the last few Gameweeks have shown a change.
Now there is a need to invest budget in your defenders especially in the likes of Chilwell and Cresswell who have the perfect blend of form and fixtures.
Moving to a strategy of investing across the team from front to back may mean that there are some forwards and midfielders who it is impossible to own as a result of budget restrictions.
However, the pull of increased defensive returns, especially from defenders with attacking potential too, should counteract any missed returns from other positions.
It is impossible to own everyone – but it is possible to set your team to return as many potential FPL points as possible by carefully distributing our FPL budget across the field.
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