In the first of a two-part article, former Fantasy Premier League champion Simon March looks at player and team form.
Fantasy Premier League managers often put a lot of emphasis on team and player form and, whether or not you fully buy into ‘form’ as a concept, teams and players definitely go through phases of scoring or conceding more goals.
The objective when considering form is, of course, to exploit the good and avoid the bad. In practice, however, we find very often that the moment we jump on a form ‘bandwagon’ it chooses that specific moment to abandon the assets we’re backing. Why is this and can we predict when it’s going to happen? This will be the focus of this article, the first of a two-part series on the subject.
Fantasy managers focus a lot of attention on teams who are scoring a lot of goals, sometimes doubling or tripling up on their players to maximise the payoff available from this FPL goldrush. Equally, a Fantasy manager will typically avoid owning players from a team who are not scoring or are conceding a lot of goals or, alternatively, these teams might be targeted as ‘whipping boys’.
What’s remarkable is how quickly these things can change and it often feels like teams or players have waited for us to fully buy into them before they suddenly become useless. Though this perception is, probably, something of a cognitive illusion, it is not entirely without a basis in reality.
You may have heard of the ‘Sports Illustrated Jinx’; the urban legend that claims that sports people who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine will, subsequently, experience misfortune or failure. There are hundreds of purported examples of this occurring that support this notion.
In fact, Fantasy Football Scout has its very own version of this, in that new guests on the Scoutcast often seem to have bad Gameweeks subsequently. I am, incidentally, myself a victim of the ‘Scoutcast Curse’. After my first appearance back in 2015, I scored 25 points the following week, in a season where I had been averaging closer to 70.
While it is impossible to rule out the possibility of a supernatural or quantum link between Sports Illustrated and athletes’ performance or the Scoutcast and FPL managers’ Gameweek scores, there is an arguably more realistic explanation; regression to the mean.
‘Regression to the mean’ describes the statistical inevitability that outliers will eventually be compensated for, bringing events, scores or outcome closer to the average. So, for example, if a team goes through a phase of scoring three or more goals per match (bearing in mind that the highest-scoring Premier League team ever; Manchester City in 2017/18, averaged 2.5 goals per game) this period will, almost certainly, lead to a subsequent period where they underperform their eventual average.
So, while it might seem like appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated or on the Scoutcast or drafting a player into your FPL team is the influencing factor in the change of form, the reality is more likely that a period of overperforming is actually what lead to there being interest enough in the individual for them to appear on these platforms in the first place. It’s not all that surprising, therefore, that this might also coincide with regression in their performance.
It is important to note that regression to the mean, while inevitable, will not necessarily occur neatly in a small sample. In other words, just because a team might currently be banging in goals for fun doesn’t mean they will suddenly start doing the opposite. It just means that the current rate of scoring is unsustainable and will regress eventually. Consequently, the value of any associated asset will also decline relative to its previous period of overperformance.
Consequently, this effect means that, by the time you become aware of a team or player’s good form, there’s a decent chance it has already passed its peak. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a player or team no longer has any value. Manchester City’s İlkay Gündoğan (£6.1m), for example, may well continue to provide decent point returns even if he isn’t scoring a brace in every match. It just means that we shouldn’t assess future value purely on a team or player’s peak output.
Instead, it is important to assess the sustainability of output realistically and in context. The drop-off in performance for an ‘in-form’ Tottenham Hotspur striker, for example, is likely to be less dramatic than the drop-off for an ‘in-form’ Sheffield United forward. This is important to note should you ever be tempted to double or triple-up on a mid-to-lower table team.
Equally fixtures, and their difficulty, are likely to have a significant influence on how performance might develop in the future. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a period of good form is more likely, and more sustainable, through a period of favourable fixtures rather than difficult ones.
Finally, an FPL manager might need to delve into the underlying stats in order to determine how much of a player or team’s current form is simply down to luck. If a player is currently scoring with practically every shot or a team is keeping clean sheets due mainly to some extraordinary goalkeeping heroics, there’s a good chance that the coming regression in performance will be more extreme.
However, form is not merely an abstract statistical trend. It is, of course, ultimately driven by the physical performance of the teams and players themselves. The second part of this article will therefore look at the more tangible factors that might drive fluctuations in form and consider how we might be able to use these as indicators to identify when it might begin or end.
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