[UPDATED July 29 to reflect different wording in the rules of the PL.com draft game which seem to allow for formations with only a single forward. I'm pretty certain it read differently before the game was released but maybe it was just a fever dream on my part.]
Welcome to a new dawn in fantasy games from the Premier League’s official site. Draft Fantasy Premier League is here. Over the past few years, sites like Togga, Fantrax, and others have been bringing the draft format, long a staple of American fantasy sports, to the Premier League. This season the first name in Premier League salary cap fantasy, the Premier League itself, is coming to the party with their own draft fantasy platform.
Before we get started, if you’re new to the draft format, here are a few other articles to check out as you’re deciding if you want to dive in:
- PL Draft Mechanics (The Scout)
- Why Draft?
- Likely Sources of Value (Seeking Gylfi)
- Handcuffing Your Squad
- How to Win Your League
- Mid-summer Ranks: Goalkeepers | Defenders | Midfielders | Forwards | Overall (Coming Soon)
As with any fantasy game, one of the keys to winning is looking at the nuances of the rules and determining what impact those small details should have on your approach to your draft and then managing your team over the course of the season. After getting a bit of a sneak peek at the Premier League game before it launched to the public, I’ve had a chance to think about these nuances for a few days and participate in a couple of test drafts and, for me, one theme stands out even more so than in most fantasy draft formats as critical to success: Understand Scarcity!
Why is scarcity so important? Let me tell you…
Strict Squad and Line-up Structure
Unlike most of the formats I have played, the Premier League has elected to create a pre-determined squad template for all owners. All squads will be comprised of 2 Goalkeepers, 5 Defenders, 5 Midfielders, and 3 Forwards. Of those players in your squad, 1 GK, 3-4 Defenders, 3-4 Midfielders, and 2-3 Forwards will start each week. These may appear to be mere details but they have significant implications for your draft when you start looking at the depth of quality options available at each position.
Why Squad Structure Matters
The fact that this format requires that you draft three forwards means that you will want to get value out of all three of those spots in your squad. In other formats, I have won leagues drafting only one or two forwards total at the beginning of the season while featuring starting line-ups heavy on outfield positions - midfielder and defender - where quality is less scarce. As many managers do in the salary cap game, you could just sacrifice a forward spot to a player you don't expect to show much productivity or use a third forward spot to handcuff your best forward but my intention going into any draft is to have a useful player in every spot in my squad.
When I talk about positional scarcity, I'm talking about the number of players available who are likely to be useful in the draft format. Given that the draft format involves a series of 38 1 vs 1 match-ups instead of an accumulation of points over the course of the season, there are two important factors when looking at scarcity – number of matches played and total points scored. The value of total points is obvious but in the draft world, the value of matches played goes up significantly because, with a limited squad, you need players who are going to contribute to your team each week. A player who plays infrequently but is extremely productive when he does play can be of dubious value in draft, especially when compared with salary cap where he can be easily jettisoned when he's out of favor. A guy like Olivier Giroud was very productive last seson for Arsenal but guessing when he might start and when he might get a goal as a substitute would have been difficult at best meaning that many of the points he accumulated would have come while he was sitting on your bench in a draft league in favor of someone more likely to feature.
NOTE: For the purposes of this analysis I’m going to use the details of an 8-team league. As leagues grow larger than 8 teams, the scarcity issue increases as more players will be drafted at each position.
Scarcity by Position
Forwards - The squad requirements of the PL.com game mean that 24 forwards will be drafted in an 8-team fantasy league. Looking at the stats for last season, the difference between the most prolific forward (Harry Kane at 224 points) and the 16th most prolific (Divock Origi at 96 points) is massive. If you go all the way down to 24th (Andy Carroll at 69 points) and the drop off is even more substantial.
The picture is even worse when you start looking at which of those 24 most prolific forwards actually played regularly. Of the top 24 in total PL.com fantasy points, Olivier Giroud (14th highest scoring), Divock Origi (16th), Benek Afobe (17th), Islam Slimani (18th), Peter Crouch (20th), Marcus Rashford (22nd), Jay Rodriguez (23rd), and Andy Carroll (24th) were something less than full time starters due to rotation and/or injury. That means of the available forwards last season, 17 were both prolific and reliable. When you consider that a minimum of 16 will start every week that puts an incredible premium on the forwards that can be counted on.
Midfielders – The drop off from the absolute best midfielders to those that will likely fill out the back end of squads is similar to the drop off at forward. The gap between the top (Alexis at 264) and 32nd (Willian at 114) or even 40th (Wanyama at 103) is almost the same. Where you see a difference in midfield that makes it a slightly less scarce position is when you factor in the depth of reliable starters and the fact that you’re only required to start 3 midfielders.
Defenders – As you move back in the formation, scarcity becomes less and less of an issue in this format. The drop off between the top defender and the last potential starter and the last likely to be drafted isn’t nearly as steep as at Forward or Midfielder. Gary Cahill came in tops last season at 178 points with Nicolas Otamendi 32nd at 100 and Alfie Mawson 40th overall at 94 points. Making for even less scarcity is the proliferation of players similar to Mawson in points scored. There will be replacement players for fringe guys like Otamendi and Mawson that will go undrafted. The combination of relatively low margin between the top defenders and the mediocre and the availability of the mediocre means that a very serviceable defender will be available later in your draft.
Goalkeepers – Taking the lack of scarcity and urgency to draft to the extreme, you have goalkeepers. The difference between the top goalkeeper (Heaton at 149) and the 8th (Fabianski at 116) is comparatively negligible at less than one point/match over the course of the season compared to a different of about 4 or so points/match between the best forwards and midfielders and “the rest”.
Obviously, the point totals above are retrospective and we don’t have absolute clarity as to who will end up on this same list when we look back at the 2017-2018 season. That’s the point of using scarcity as a lens to drive your draft strategy. Scarcity of prolific and reliable forwards should be pointing you in the direction of using your draft resources early in the draft on the things you’re unlikely to be able to get later. That means forwards then midfielders then defenders then, eventually, goalkeepers. Obviously, you don’t go overboard with this line of thinking and pick Troy Deeney over Eden Hazard but if it’s even close between the available forwards and the available midfielders early on, go with the forward.
One way around the scarcity issue at forward is called Handcuffing and you can read more about that here.