if you are like me, the moment a fantasy soccer game goes live, you are trying to build the perfect XI to begin the season with. That initial draft is like a rush of adrenaline, you lean back and admire this new team with a smile on your face. Then, you tinker a little. Then you tinker a bit more. As the weeks pass leading up to the first deadline, more information trickles out -- transfers, injuries, pre-season performance...it gets to the stage where you have created so many drafts of your initial team you probably can recall every relevant player having been in at least one of them. It happens to me every season, and by doing that, I usually have a frustrating opening weekend watching some players put up monster numbers who were once in my fantasy squad. It is akin to filling out 1,000 March Madness brackets, submitting just one, and then fuming over the results as you recall a bracket you filled out being perfect. Fortunately, with the Yahoo game, a bad week 1 can be forgotten about quickly. There is plenty of time to rebound as you have the chance to reshuffle your squad week after week. And that is comforting. Once the season starts, you only need to tinker a couple of times a week -- early to bring players in before a price rise and again near the deadline to mend any issues like injuries or rumors of a player being dropped.
I cannot wait for that initial deadline to pass, it will be one gigantic exhale from yours truly.
If you read my column last year, The Free Kick, you may recall a presentation where I offered up budget options that could outperform their more expensive and popular alternatives. This season, I am offering a spin on that concept. Now, it is all about the budget players and my task is to build a "Budget XI" for every gameweek. The purpose for the fantasy manager is still the same: options at each position who are inexpensive and have an opportunity to offer decent if not solid returns, which can free up cash to load up on the best players everywhere else.
There is no other point in the season that is more unpredictable than the results of Week 1 in the Premier League. Managerial changes, player movement, player development and team chemistry can change the landscape drastically. The biggest question mark is who will come out of the gates as a starter. Jose Mourinho was kind enough to let us fantasy managers know that he has decided on his first choice keeper and that the rest of us will know...on Sunday. Thanks Jose. Long story short, you want to build a team for Week 1 with very little question marks surrounding your players chances of starting. This can make finding solid budget options in the opening week a bit dodgy. The names I offer up today are not guaranteed starts, but all are very likely to. So let's dive in.
Admittedly, last year I was hunting for bargains at the keeper position more often than I should have been. With such a dramatic swing in points hinging on Wins and Losses, I learned the hard way about the cost of doing business with cheaper options between the sticks. This time around, I am forcing myself to shell out a bit more cash to prevent those nasty negative scores. My strategy to enter this season is to find a keeper that I can have faith in for several weeks. If I choose wisely, that player can stay in my squad for a nice stretch, locked in at the price I paid for him. Looking over the fixtures, and considering the personnel changes that have taken place over the summer, from the manager on down, opting for David De Gea looks like an intelligent move. Just look at the first 8 matchups for Manchester United this season:
Swansea, @Sunderland, @Burnley, QPR, @Leicester, West Ham, Everton, @West Brom
In my estimation, of these eight opponents, six or seven of them will be hovering near or firmly positioned in the relegation zone. You could hardly create a more appealing schedule. Even the toughest opponent, Everton, have to come to Old Trafford. One has to think that even if United are not a stalwart defense this season, this eight-game chunk of the schedule offers more clean sheet chances than any other stretch. I am buying De Gea and unless it's looking like Manchester United II: The Legend of Moyes' Mess, I am sticking with him until the Halloween decorations go up.
Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion) However, if you must go cheap at the keeper position this week, the only option I can recommend is Foster. He is the only keeper that costs under 8m with a home game against one of the weaker opponents in the league. I hesitate because even though their opponents, Sunderland, barely survived the drop last season, they did finish strong and have some decent weapons whereas Albion are looking to me like a club that will be fighting all year to avoid relegation.
Steven Caulker (Queens Park Rangers) Perhaps it's an oversight by the fantasy pricing gods, but you won't see me complain about Caulker's 7m price tag to begin the season. And judging by his current ownership, many of you haven't forgotten how well he scored while playing for Cardiff City last season, the worst team in the Premiership. Caulker has proven himself in this scoring system that no matter how bad the team was, he is a reliable source for points.
Callum Chambers (Arsenal) This is one of those opportunities to take advantage of "World Cup Hangover". Per Mertesacker has already been considered by Arsene Wenger unfit for Week 1. The natural deputy in this spot is Chambers, who at under 6m, looks to be a great pick if the Gunners can manage a clean sheet at home to Crystal Palace. Hopefully he can contribute in other categories as well but for that price, I think the clean sheet opportunity validates the price alone. Use him while you can, generally you will have to pony up a lot more cash for Arsenal defensive coverage.
Patrick van Aanholt (Sunderland) van Aanholt is a bit of an unknown commodity. He had been Chelsea property for years until this summer, enduring one loan spell after another. Now he looks poised to be the regular left back at Sunderland. The Black Cats showed that an attacking fullback can be a productive fantasy contributor despite results last year, when Phil Bardsley would put up some impressive scores. A player with Chelsea pedigree for 5.53m playing a shaky West Brom defense is enough to give him a spot in the Bargain XI.
Kyle Naughton (Tottenham) This is another short term bargain replacement option as the other Kyle at White Hart Lane, Kyle Walker, looks set to miss the opener for Spurs due to a pelvic injury and Naughton is the only other defender Tottenham have with experience at right back. Like Chambers, Naughton's resume does not offer much besides a possible clean sheet, and at 6.67m, I prefer the three prior defenders to him, but if you think Spurs can keep West Ham out (which would come to no surprise to this author having seen the Hammers in preseason action) then you could save a few million with Naughton.
Erik Lamela (Tottenham) More value to be had from Spurs, and this might be the bargain of the year. For a measly 2.77m, you can have Erik Lamela in your XI. Rejuvenated under the tutelage of Mauricio Pochettino, Lamela is looking like a regular first team choice from the jump this season after spending most of his first season in the PL training and watching from the sidelines. He has a ton of potential that could translate into a top 10 or 15 midfielder in fantasy for the entire season. Even if you feel nervous about starting him from the get go, you must free up some cash to give him space on your bench in case he explodes and you don't have the means to grab him before a price rise.
Robert Snodgrass (Hull City) I like what Steve Bruce is doing with the Tigers and Snodgrass is a great pickup for them. A set piece wizard playing against QPR for 7m smells like a bargain to me. There is nothing better than a set piece goal in the Yahoo game - 13 points in an instant - 7 for the goal, 3 for the shot on target, 3 more for being a set piece goal. As long as Snodgrass stays below 10m and is facing a favorable opponent, he looks solid value for your XI.
Ashley Young (Manchester United) With all the talent pouring into Old Trafford this summer, perhaps the most pleasant surprise for United has been the performance of Young this preseason, as he looks revitalized in his wing back role under van Gaal's 3-5-2 formation. I suppose technically he is a "reverse" out-of-position prospect, but with three goals in the preseason, he has shown he may be more effective in the wing back role. I wouldn't put it past van Gaal to bring in another new name to challenge Young for this spot, but for now, at under 5m, get it while you can as Janis Joplin once said.
Ross Barkley (Everton) Now before you say, "Thanks Captain Obvious" please understand that while Barkley's ownership is high enough to think that most people are aware of his value for 6.41m, apparently 64% of managers have not caught on. I was actually hesitant to include him with the doubts surrounding the likes of Seamus Coleman, Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku for fear that Everton might be a bit flat in their opener but the latest for Roberto Martinez is that he hopes they are all ready for the weekend, which leads me to conclude they will be in the game barring a setback in training. Barkley is a bulldog playing the CAM position for a good club at a cheap price. Ok, maybe I am Captain Obvious.
Stevan Jovetic (Manchester City) As the late Robin Williams instilled in his students in the film Dead Poet's Society, "seize the day". I would give Jovetic the same advice, but I just can't seem to get him on the telephone. With Sergio Aguero banged up, this is the opportunity for Jovetic to show his world class skills in the Premier League. He must be world class, right? In FIFA 14 he is. Unfortunately for the past year, that was pretty much the only way to see him play in a Sky Blue shirt. If you are playing three forwards in your fantasy XI, he looks a good punt in Week 1 against Newcastle for the low, low price of 5.87m.
Mame Biran Diouf (Stoke City) This is my under the radar special kids. While all the attention has been on Stoke's other forward signing, Bojan Krkic, Diouf is the Potter you want. Bojan has been playing behind the striker and by all accounts that striker will more often than not be Diouf, who is arriving from a successful campaign in the Bundesliga where he amassed 26 goals in 57 appearances. Stoke still have the stigma of a team that doesn't score much but this preseason has helped shake that reputation. This isn't Pulis' Potters anymore. For just 5m, 1m less than Bojan, Diouf is going widely unnoticed and I think that is going to change in the near future.
Your Bargain XI: Foster; Caulker, Chambers, van Aanholt, Naughton; Lamela, Snodgrass, Young, Barkley; Jovetic, Diouf
Now can we start this season already?